By Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen, legal and policy intern
When the people of Bangladesh went to the polls on Jan. 7, they did so knowing the outcome was already predetermined: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League won a fourth consecutive term, pushing the country further toward authoritarianism.
With more than 19 years in power, Hasina is the longest-serving ruler in the history of Bangladesh. Though praised for transforming the country into an emerging market economy, she has been heavily criticized for her brutal crackdown on journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and the political opposition.
The criticism is more than deserved. Since taking office in 2009, Hasina has resorted to the complete eradication of her opponents. That is to say, there have been at least 600 cases of enforced disappearances since 2009, many of which involve activists associated with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Hasina has also employed paramilitary forces to abduct politically active civilians, according to an investigation by Deutsche Welle. The regime and its Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have been accused of grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and tortures.
Hasina also suppresses dissent online. Journalists and online critics have long been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and arrest under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). The DSA allows the regime to order the removal of any digital content it deems necessary. Since its enactment in 2018, thousands of cases have been filed across the country, and hundreds of journalists have been sued.
In October, several months before the election, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital city to call for Hasina’s resignation and for a neutral interim government to oversee the election — two demands she swiftly rejected.
Since then, the regime has relentlessly cracked down on the opposition. Nearly 10,000 opposition leaders and activists have been arrested, while more than 5,500 have been injured in clashes with police. Last month, six members of the BNP reportedly died in prison after two weeks. Other activists are reportedly being tortured after being targeted by law enforcement officers.
Ahead of the election, to forge legitimacy, Hasina reportedly propped dummy candidates and intimidated supporters of independent candidates to stop campaigning. Continuing the regime’s media repression, censorship worsened in the lead-up to the election.
The BNP called for a boycott of the election and urged people not to vote, but the Awami League outmaneuvered the opposition, reportedly threatening to strip citizens of their social benefits if they didn’t turn up on voting day.
What’s more, the Bangladesh Election Commission imposed a three-week ban on all political activities, except election-related campaigning, from Dec. 18 to election day. And the Commission disqualified hundreds of candidates, mostly independents, from contesting the election.
On Sunday, the Commission reported a 28% voter turnout but later upped it to 40%. In any case, 40% is significantly lower than the 2018 election, which has a turnout of more than 80%. The low, fluctuating number reflects the system’s low credibility and, potentially, the BNP’s attempted boycott.
The world must pay attention to Bangladesh. Hasina is unlikely to slow down, leading the country closer and closer to one-party rule and full-fledged authoritarianism. Bangladesh’s democracy is backsliding — fast.
Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).