The ruling Awami League’s victory in the 7 January elections has given Sheikh Hasina a record fifth term as Prime Minister
Bangladesh’s Election Commission announced on 8 January that Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party had won a fourth consecutive term in the previous day’s elections, winning almost 75% of the total of 300 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad, the Parliament. Having previously served as Prime Minister between 1996 and 2001, Hasina then returned to power after a landslide victory in 2009, and has remained at the helm since. The results of the 7 January elections were actually already obvious well before Election Day after the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) announced its decision to boycott the polls, resulting in the Awami League facing fewer credible candidates from the opposition. The absence of serious electoral competition may also have contributed to the lower voter turnout of 41.8%. Speaking to reporters after her victory was confirmed, Hasina called the vote a “victory of the people”. Referring to the opposition boycott, she said, “Each political party has the right to take its own decision, and the absence of one party in the election does not mean democracy is absent…time and again people have voted for me, and that is why I am here”.
As The Guardian pointed out, “Hasina has presided over breakneck economic growth and a booming garment export industry in the country of 170 million people once beset by grinding poverty”, but she has also faced allegations pertaining to human rights that Hasina has denied vociferously. The Guardian also noted Hasina’s pitch during the campaign leading up to the elections that “her policies had put the country on a pathway of stability, secularism and economic development”.
BNP Chairman Tarique Rahman, who has been living in exile in the United Kingdom (UK) for many years, defended his party’s boycott of the vote, saying it had a “predetermined” outcome, and he led the opposition in its expectedly shrill criticism of the elections. Opposition activists also staged a protest in Dhaka on 8 January, wearing black gags over their mouths to condemn the election.
Within Bangladesh, opinion on the elections was divided. Many were unimpressed by what they felt was essentially a one-sided affair. Others, such as Syed Borhan Kabir, the Chief Editor of Bangla Insider, argued that “It is true that if the BNP had participated in elections, democracy would be complete, and the election would have been competitive. In such a scenario, voter turnout is always low. Nevertheless, 41 per cent of voters have cast their votes, which is not bad. A weak constitutional government is much better than an unconstitutional government”.
International reactions to the elections were prompt, but varied. A spokeswoman quoted United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres as saying that he “calls on all parties to reject all forms of violence and to ensure that human rights and the rule of law are fully respected”. Meanwhile, envoys from China and Russia were among the first to congratulate Hasina on her victory, visiting her at her residence on 8 January and praising what Hasina’s office said was her “absolute victory”. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning later said, “China congratulates Bangladesh on holding a smooth general election as scheduled and we congratulate the Awami League on winning the election. As a friend and neighbour, China firmly supports Bangladesh in advancing its post-election political agenda in accordance with the law”.
The United States (US) felt that the elections had not been free or fair, and it expressed regret over the fact that “not all parties participated”. It added, however, that it would work closely with the new government. Saying that “Democratic elections depend on credible, open, and fair competition”, the UK assessed that the 7 January elections “did not meet the standard”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on 8 January that he had called Sheikh Hasina and congratulated her on her historic victory. He praised the successful conduct of the elections.
In an analytical article titled ‘What Does Bangladesh’s Upcoming Election Mean for its Foreign Policy?’ for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on 2 January, Geoffrey Macdonald outlined the thinking that had shaped the perceptions that countries had regarding Bangladesh. He wrote, “Bangladesh has in recent years drawn positive and solicitous attention in the realm of geopolitics. In 2020, then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the United States was committed to growing its partnership with Bangladesh as ‘a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region’. The U.S. Agency of International Development’s 2023 Country Development Cooperation Strategy cites Bangladesh’s strategically important ‘geographic location connecting South and Southeast Asia’. A 2023 U.K. development report calls Bangladesh ‘a key player in upholding the Rules-Based International System’ in the Indo-Pacific. In 2022, Japan’s then-ambassador in Dhaka, Ito Naoki, called Bangladesh a ‘vital country in geopolitical terms’, and last year French President Emmanuel Macron visited Bangladesh to ‘consolidate’ France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in the face of China’s ‘new imperialism’”.
About Bangladesh’s immediate vicinity, Macdonald wrote that “As direct regional competitors, India and China are also courting Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long been a key part of India’s ‘Look East’ and now ‘Act East’ policies, which emphasize regional transport and digital connectivity, trade and investment, and energy cooperation. India also has concerns about Islamic extremism and cross-border militancy emanating from Bangladesh. On these issues, India sees Bangladesh’s ruling AL as an ally and therefore favors the political status quo. China, which has called Bangladesh a ‘strategic development partner’, finds appeal in Bangladesh’s proximity to India and strategic location on the Bay of Bengal and has sought to build close economic relations with the AL government, occasionally warning Bangladesh against Western ties”. Macdonald concluded that “Under the Hasina government, Bangladesh has tried to balance these outside influences, accepting aid and partnership from different foreign powers while endeavoring to avoid dependence”.
Interestingly, Macdonald included in his article write-ups by both the Awami League and the BNP about their views on each other, and on their respective foreign policies. While the BNP argued that “the AL government still promotes its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s philosophy during the early 1970s of ‘friendship to all, malice to none’. But in reality, the AL’s foreign policy is aimed at appeasing authoritarian powers”. The BNP further opined that “Bangladesh has lost dignity and credibility at home and abroad” under the Awami League regime, and that “The Rohingya crisis demonstrates a key policy failure”.
The BNP outlined that “If elected, the BNP’s foreign policy outlook would be pragmatic and adaptable, shaped by the spirit of the country’s 1971 liberation war, domestic political situation, changing regional and geo-strategic environment, and the world economic order”. Further, “On transnational and regional issues, the BNP will keenly work for stability, security, peace and economic prosperity in its neighborhood. We will maintain a robust counterterrorism policy, promote international cooperation in tackling corruption and enhance our contribution to U.N. peacekeeping efforts”.
The Awami League, warning of the dangers of electing in a BNP-led government, had asserted that “Undermining Bangabandhu’s secular and democratic vision, the BNP’s founder, Gen. Zia, fundamentally altered Bangladesh’s foreign and domestic policy toward religious fundamentalism. Zia repealed secularism from the constitution, added Islamic language to the preamble and other articles, and amended the constitution to emphasize Islamic solidarity. This ideological shift laid the groundwork for the BNP’s radical foreign policy in the early 1990s and early 2000s, which had severe consequences. In contrast to the AL’s policy of peaceful coexistence and respect for sovereignty, the BNP struck a defense agreement with China in 2002 and allowed anti-India militants to transfer illicit weapons to rebels in India’s Northeast region. Such brazen disregard for another state’s sovereignty by sponsoring proxy forces for disruptive ends gravely imperiled regional security”.
The Awami League continued, “Under the BNP, Bangladesh transformed into a hub for militant extremism that weakened regional counterterrorism efforts. In 2001, the BNP formed a governing coalition with Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which had links to al-Qaeda affiliates like Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Bangladesh saw its first ever suicide attack during this period. In this enabling environment for extremism, HUJI-B attempted to assassinate then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina in 2004, killing 24, and JMB carried out 500 explosions across 63 of 64 districts in synchronized terror attacks”.
Further, “During the BNP’s undemocratic rule, corrupt governance opened avenues for exploitative global actors. Systemic corruption metastasized, with Bangladesh ranked as the world’s most corrupt country for nearly all five years under its rule from 2001 to 2006. Weak institutions and venality enabled unfair trade practices and corrupt investors to capture projects through graft. The return of the BNP’s revisionist foreign policy — grounded in religious extremism and proxy conflicts — would undermine the rules-based international order and regional territorial integrity”.
The Awami League informed that its foreign policy vision “is predicated on democratic values, economic dynamism, multilateral engagement and upholding international law and institutions while protecting our national interests. As outlined in Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, the AL aims to advance regional stability through peaceful coexistence and multilateral partnership. We support a rules-based order to preserve freedom of navigation and maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean region. Current and past AL governments have demonstrated a commitment to addressing regional challenges through diplomacy and peaceful arbitration, including the maritime boundary resolution with Myanmar (2012) and India (2014), the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (1997), the Ganges water sharing agreement (1996) and the Land Boundary Agreement with India (1974; India ratified in 2015)”.
As for the economy, the ruling party said that “Under the AL’s stewardship, Bangladesh is now South Asia’s second-largest economy, with the region’s highest per capita income. Bangladesh’s stability, economic openness and digital adaptation will spur foreign investment and advanced technology development in semiconductors, artificial intelligence and renewable energy. With the AL in power, Bangladesh will reach a near trillion-dollar economy by 2030, transforming Bangladesh into an economic epicenter that enhances regional economic balance and stability”.
This week’s electoral victory has given the Awami League the opportunity to work towards turning its vision into reality. It will encounter challenges along the way – an agitated political opposition, the ongoing hiccups in the economy, and pressure from the US-led West on democracy, human rights, and rule of law related matters being some of them. It remains to be seen whether the Sheikh Hasina government will, after the resounding victory, choose to reach out to the opposition to address internal discontent.
Externally, Sheikh Hasina will continue to look at immediate neighbour India, with which she shares a historically close and trust-filled relationship, for support during difficult times. India values Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League, and this respect was recently on display when Hasina was the only South Asian leader invited to last year’s G20 Leaders’ Summit under India’s presidency.
A noticeable factor at the 7 January elections was the scant mention of Pakistan, at one time an active player in Bangladeshi elections during the BNP-JEI era, during campaigning, or even in the media, reflecting how far out of South Asia’s imagination Islamabad’s terrorist-friendly policies, its economic incompetence, and its dysfunctional polity lorded over by the dominant military establishment, had taken it.