Bangladesh’s democracy faces strain as Hasina is reelected amid a boycott by opposition parties

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has swept to power for a fourth consecutive term in Bangladesh, following an election on Sunday that was boycotted by opposition parties and roiled by violent protests and international scrutiny.

Her Awami League party won 224 seats out of 299, according to local media, cementing a majority in Parliament and extending her 15-year-long rule that has already made Hasina one of the most defining and divisive leaders in the nation’s history.Official results from the Election Commission were expected later Monday.

Campaigning was rife with violence and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies boycotted the election saying that Hasina’s government could not oversee free and fair polls.

“This is not a story of a thumping, resounding reaction from the people. There is a question mark in the public’s mind about this election, so the result that has come will face this taint,” said Avinash Paliwal, who specializes in South Asia relations at London’s SOAS University.

It has also spotlighted a troublesome electoral record, with the latest polls being the third in the last 15 years to be dogged by credibility concerns. The previous two votes were widely seen as flawed with allegations of vote-rigging, which authorities denied, and another opposition boycott. All three elections were held under Hasina’s rule.

The main opposition party has rejected the latest results as a one-sided election.

This is likely “to ratchet up rather than rein in political tensions” and fan further polarization and mistrust instead of reconciliation, said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

The government has consistently defended the polls as open and inclusive, but critics have pointed out that many smaller opposition groups and independent candidates belonged to the ruling party, which left voters with few options.

While Hasina is often credited with presiding over Bangladesh’s impressive growth in recent years, experts say its economy is now sputtering. The nation’s foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to less than three months worth of imports, the price of groceries has surged and a wave of labor protests from the country’s prized garment industry has highlighted dissatisfaction with the government.

Experts say economic discontent is already mounting and widespread in Bangladesh, which means Hasina’s handling of the economy will be key going forward, especially to regain legitimacy among disenchanted voters who skipped the polls.

The political tumult surrounding the election also risks straining Bangladesh’s ties with the U.S., the biggest buyer of its garment exports. Relations between the two sides have been tense for months, especially after Washington vowed to impose visa restrictions on anyone disrupting the electoral process in a bid to ensure that the government held a legitimate election. The move irked Hasina, who accused the U.S. of trying to plot her ouster.

Pierre Prakash, Asia director at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that researches global conflict, said the U.S. made Bangladesh a showcase of the Biden administration’s values-based foreign policy, which emphasizes human rights and democratic freedoms.

Dhaka is an important trade and strategic partner for Washington in Asia, where it is trying to counter Chinese influence, but the Biden administration has still been vocal about its concerns surrounding the election.

“We’ll have to see how the U.S. behaves. There could be sanctions on the horizon, but we don’t know for sure,” Prakash said, adding that these could target individuals or apply more broadly to a sector, which would more adversely pinch citizens.

Bangladesh’s regional neighbors are likely to welcome Hasina’s reelection. Her tough stance on terror, non-aligned foreign policy and efforts to help Rohingya refugees — “all of this has made her government, warts and all, fully acceptable to much of the world,” Kugelman said.

Hasina has also won support from Russia, which is building a nuclear plant in the country, and maintained ties with the European Union, a major trade partner that analysts say will be watching developments closely.

Her biggest backer remains India, which has invested in several infrastructure projects as it jostles for influence against rival China in the region.

While that’s unlikely to change in the short run, Paliwal at SOAS said there is growing anti-India sentiment amid perceptions that New Delhi’s support has enabled Hasina’s controversial rise and authoritarian turn.

“This narrative is taking root, and New Delhi will be watching because it can’t write off the political problems that are rising within the country,” he said, adding that the low voter turnout is a major blow to the Awami League. “This will reshape the calculus of Hasina’s international allies and adversaries alike in the coming weeks.”

By Usmana Kousar