Bangladesh: Will Hasina outlive the January 7th elections?

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by Taj Hashmi     19 November 2023

The title of this article poses a question that may receive a strong negative response, or at least a response indicating a low possibility. It is worth noting, however, that a negative response does not necessarily imply physical elimination. Unfortunately, the history of post-liberation Bangladesh includes several instances of politicians in power and in opposition being physically eliminated as a means of ending their political careers.

It is well-known among those familiar with the recent history, socio-political and economic situation of the country that Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party has been serving as the prime minister for the past 15 years in consecutive terms. However, it is also well-known that her regime has been globally denounced for being unelected, brutal, and corrupt, lacking any legitimacy. Not only have multiple human rights organizations and renowned members of the civil society at home and abroad (including more than a hundred Nobel laureates), the UN, and the Biden Administration (among other governments in the East and West) criticized her regime for its brutality and corrupt practices, but all the major opposition parties in the country are also determined to remove her regime from power.

In December 2008, she was elected to power in what appeared to be rigged polls orchestrated by the US, India, and their allies in the West and East. Her party and she managed to gain support from Western and Indian powers as champions of democracy, and secularism, and opponents of Islamist extremists, whether for the right or wrong reasons. Wikileaks revealed that Hillary Clinton played a role in the 2008 election of Hasina, with direct support from India. Former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee revealed this in his book, The Coalition Years.

However, in recent years, with the defeat of ISIS and the elimination of Ayman al Zawahiri and others, democratic and human rights violations have become the new battle cry for the West and its allies. Islamist extremism has taken a backseat to the fight for democracy and human rights, particularly with the end of the Trump Administration, which was notorious for autocracy and human rights violations, and the possible revival of the same in 2024. Therefore, the Biden Administration and its allies worldwide have prioritized the fight for democracy and human rights as the most important issues.

Two additional rounds of rigged elections were conducted during Hasina’s tenure. In 2014, Hasina cleverly manipulated the elections by technically eliminating the BNP (which boycotted the polls) by declaring a walkover of 153 ruling party candidates in the parliament of 300 seats. India openly intervened in the elections by favouring the ruling Awami League party, and by pressuring former dictator Ershad to participate in the elections to avoid another embarrassing walkover by the ruling party.

The 2018 elections in Bangladesh broke all previous records of election engineering, possibly making it the most manipulated election in the world. It has been reported that during the 2008 elections, India and the West collaborated to influence the outcome, but in 2014, India was the sole external power to manipulate the results. However, in 2018, China’s Xi Jinping orchestrated the most significant election manipulation in South Asia’s history. In almost 300 constituencies across the country, ruling party supporters, government employees, and police carried out ballot stuffing the night before election day on December 30th. Several Western politicians, human rights organizations, journalists, and intellectuals, as well as their counterparts in Bangladesh and other countries, identified the elections as the most rigged electoral process worldwide. The former Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh publicly criticized the vote-rigging in the country, where police placed sealed ballot papers in favor of the ruling party in the ballot boxes. According to reports, China provided millions of dollars to help Hasina bribe election commission officials, police, bureaucrats, and party supporters to manipulate the elections.

During the fifteen-year tenure of Hasina, the regime has been notorious for its brutal treatment of dissidents and opposition supporters. Moreover, pervasive and uncontrolled corruption riddles the ruling party leaders, police, bureaucracy, judiciary, armed forces, traders, and businessmen. The US Administration under President Joe Biden has surprisingly taken an unprecedented step to urge Bangladesh to uphold the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. However, it is worth noting that this intervention by the US and its allies is selective, as they turn a blind eye to similar violations of democratic norms and human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt. This is an interesting aspect of the story surrounding Bangladesh. It’s not hard to see why the US has suddenly changed its foreign policy. The Hasina Regime’s heavy reliance on China, which is now a geopolitical rival of the US and its allies, has been the main reason behind this shift. The new US policy appears to prioritize the promotion of democracy and human rights in certain countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US foreign policy towards defending democracy and human rights in select countries like Bangladesh is being put aside for now. It is important to focus on what has happened to Bangladesh under the current Hasina Regime. The regime has been allowing China to invest billions of dollars in various projects, some of which are productive while others are considered white elephants. This has caused annoyance to India and contempt from the United States which is determined to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region at any cost. It is widely held that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina and her associates, including family members, political affiliates, police officials, military personnel, bureaucrats, and select business magnates, have amassed billions of dollars through investments from China in the country. It is generally acknowledged that they have been a significant factor in the country’s recent economic growth, while also raising concerns about transparency and accountability in government and business affairs.

The current situation in Bangladesh has raised concerns about the country’s violation of democracy and human rights, and its growing dependence on Chinese investment. In light of this, the Biden administration has expressed a desire to promote democracy, good governance, and human rights both domestically (to contain Trumpism) and in the Indo-Pacific region. This is seen as an effort to counter China’s growing economic and military power, which has been a source of irritation for the US, particularly due to China’s support for rogue states like North Korea and Myanmar. The recent overtures from China to the Hasina regime, and the latter’s positive response to it, have added to the growing concerns about the country’s direction under the current regime.

The recent visa sanctions imposed on seven Bangladeshi law enforcement officers on December 10, 2021, per the Magnitsky Act, have made Biden’s almost-all-stick approach to Hasina a game-changer in Bangladesh. The sanctions were promised to anyone violating the norms of free, fair, and inclusive elections. Bangladesh was not invited to the Democracy Summit consecutively in 2021 and 2022 by the Biden Administration. The summit aimed to promote democracy, combat authoritarianism, and address human rights violations. As a result, Bangladesh felt shunned by the US. However, the US Administration sent several high officials from the State Department to the country who urged the Hasina Regime to respect democracy and human rights, especially those of the opposition. Despite this, the Regime has continued to repress the main opposition parties’ leaders and followers, promising free and fair elections by January 2014. It has also refused to admit to manipulating any elections in the past 15 years. The Biden administration remains unconvinced and unrelenting, with Ambassador Peter Haas urging the Regime to follow democratic norms and human rights and hold free, fair, and inclusive elections. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, BNP, has suffered the brunt of Hasina’s repressive measures. After holding a massive public rally in Dhaka on October 28th, around 10,000 BNP leaders and followers were arrested within a week. Tens of thousands of its leaders are behind bars or in hiding. Despite the pleas from various human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN, for Hasina to respect democracy and human rights, she has not relented. China has been the main supporter of the Regime, and the Modi Administration, which prefers the Awami League to the independent BNP, has been supporting Hasina from behind the scenes.

Finally, being fully convinced that while BNP, the main opposition party and its allies are dead against participating in any elections without a neutral Caretaker Government (Hasina’s parliament arbitrarily dropped this constitutional provision in 2011), and America is relentless in its demand to hold free, fair, and inclusive elections, Hasina declared on November 15 to hold elections on January 7, 2024, under her government, which is widely known as an unelected, illegitimate one. She is possibly hoping against hope that after she holds free and fair elections (she would not need any rigging as her compliant opposition coalition partners are least likely to get more than one-third of 300 seats in the parliament) the US and its allies would legitimize her government. The chances are very slim or non-existent as the Biden Administration is determined to totally eliminate Chinese influence in the country. It does not want another Chinese satellite a la North Korea and Myanmar in the Indo-Pacific region.

Numerous policymakers and think tanks in the United States are advocating that the Biden Administration impose extensive economic sanctions on the Hasina regime. These measures would involve terminating all US aid, grants, investments, and cooperation with the country, as well as discontinuing apparel imports from Bangladesh. Such actions could have a significant impact on the country’s already struggling economy. It is worth noting that the Hasina regime’s downfall seems imminent, particularly given the upcoming non-inclusive elections on January 7th, which will not involve the participation of the BNP and its allies.

*A historian-cum-cultural anthropologist and security analyst Taj Hashmi, Ph.D., FRAS, is a retired professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, US. He has written several books and hundreds of journal-articles, and newspaper op-eds. As an analyst of current affairs, he regularly appears on talk shows about Bangladesh, South Asia, and World affairs. His latest book, Fifty Years of Bangladesh, 1971-2021: Crises of Culture, Development, Governance, and Identity, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2022. Tel: 1+ 647 447 2609. Email: tajhashmi@gmail.com

 

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Dr. Taj Hashmi is a Research Associate at the York Centre for Asian Research at York University, Toronto, and Retired Professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was born in 1948 in Assam, India, and was raised in Bangladesh. He holds a Ph.D. in modern South Asian History from the University of Western Australia, and a Masters and BA (Hons) in Islamic History & Culture from Dhaka University. He did his post-doctoral research at the Centre for International Studies (CIS), Oxford, and Monash University (Australia). Since 1987, he is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS). He is a reviewer of manuscripts for several publishers, including Oxford, Sage, and Routledge. He has authored scores of academic papers, and more than a couple of hundred popular essays and newspaper articles/op-eds on various aspects of history, politics, society, politics, culture, Islam, terrorism, counter terrorism and security issues in South Asia, Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, and North America. He is a regular commentator on current world affairs on the BBC, Voice of America, and some other media outlets.- His major publications include Global Jihad and America (SAGE, 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Islam, Muslims, and the Modern State (co-ed) (Palgrave-Macmillan, 1994); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); and Colonial Bengal (in Bengali) (Papyrus, Kolkata 1985). His Global Jihad has been translated into Hindi and Marathi. His Women and Islam was a best-seller in Asian Studies and was awarded the Justice Ibrahim Gold Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. He is working on his next book, A Historical Sociology of Bangladesh. His immediate past assignment was at Austin Peay State University at Clarksville, Tennessee, where he taught Criminal Justice & Security Studies (2011-2018). Prior to that, he was Professor of Security Studies at the US Department of Defense, College of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, Hawaii (2007-2011). He started his teaching career in 1972 as a lecturer in History at Chittagong University, and after a year joined Dhaka University (Bangladesh) and taught Islamic History & Culture (1973-1981) before moving to Australia for his Ph.D. Afterwards he taught History (South Asia and Middle East) at the National University of Singapore (1989-1998) before joining Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) as Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences (1998-2002). Then he joined the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver (Canada) as a Visiting Professor in Asian Studies for two years (2003-2005), and worked as an adjunct professor of History for a year at Simon Fraser University in Canada (2005-2006). Tel: (1) 647 447 2609. Email: tjhashmi@gmail.com and hashmit@apsu.edu