Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s ‘iron lady’ and only viable election candidate

Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister who has accumulated the greatest number of mandates in the history of Bangladesh, aspires to extend her ironclad government over the Asian country for the fourth consecutive term in the general elections on January 7 as the only viable candidate.

In an election marked by an opposition boycott, with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leading an agitation outside the polls, the key question is not so much who will govern the country but whether there is a real option for dialogue after the election. vote, amid fear of a wave of violence and state repression.

From daughter of the founder of Bangladesh to iron lady

Hasina, 76, won her first general election in 1996 after rising to the political front line thanks in part to the prestige of being the heir to her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the central figure in the war with Pakistan that led to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

Rahman was assassinated in 1975 during a coup d’état, and Hasina began to weave her networks of followers from exile in New Delhi. Upon her return to Bangladesh in 1981, the current prime minister was appointed president of the Awami League, a position she still holds.

After 15 consecutive years in power, to which is added her first term between 1996 and 2001, her followers describe her as a “visionary leader” behind an economic success story, with a poverty rate of 5% in 2022 compared to to 11.8% in 2010, according to the World Bank.

Approval of the international community

Also his decision to shelter more than a million Rohingya, including some 774,000 who fled in 2017 from an Army offensive in their native Burma described as an attempted genocide, has earned him the approval of the international community.

“He is carrying out the vision of Bangabandhu (Rahman’s honorific nickname), and fulfilling his dream of a happy and prosperous Bangladesh,” the former vice-rector of the University of Dhaka, Abu Ahsan Mohammad Shamsul Arefin Siddique, told Efe.

But critics argue that this country of 169 million people, whose gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to grow by 6% by 2023 despite a worrying rise in inflation, has grown in the shadow of serious abuses by the human rights during the Hasina government.

“Sheikh Hasina has always wanted to do good for Bangladesh (…) but she has shown an unfortunate tendency towards power grabs and authoritarianism,” Meekanshi Ganguly, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Efe.

When the current prime minister came to power in 2009, the country had three cases of forced disappearances, according to HRW. For the following elections in 2014, boycotted by the opposition, there were 130, and in 2018 a somewhat smaller number, 98.

“Instead of trusting that his government would be appreciated enough to ensure his return to office through free and fair elections, he has repeatedly abused his power,” Ganguly said.

Solo show

The consequence of these totalitarian tendencies could not be more palpable in these general elections, with the opposition outside the elections and actively boycotting the vote.

The BNP, which in 2018 participated in elections marked by accusations of fraud after the Awami League and its allies took 288 of the 300 seats up for grabs, has denounced an unprecedented campaign of arrests since it organized a massive demonstration on October 28 in the capital.

More than 24,000 of its leaders and activists have been arrested, according to the opposition group, whose leadership has been practically dismantled.

BNP leader banned from participation

Khaleda Zia, BNP leader and former prime minister, has been banned from participating since her conditional release from prison in March 2020, and her fragile health is worrying her supporters. Her eldest son and her interim president, Tarique Rahman, has been exiled in London since 2008 after being convicted in multiple cases.

The BNP’s demand that Hasina dissolve her government and form an interim executive to oversee the elections has been flatly rejected, making dialogue impossible. Thus, the elections on January 7 have become a solo show.

“The arguments in favor of resuming dialogue and improving relations between both parties are likely to become even more compelling as the Government faces a series of challenges after the elections,” the research laboratory said in a report published this week. ideas International Crisis Group (ICG).

By Usmana Kousar