Hasina 5.0 and what does Bangladesh Election Means for the Region?

The paper represents the views of the authors and does not represent those of the Centre.

The incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wins for a fifth consecutive term following the January 7 general election in Bangladesh. She is set to remain prime minister in a one-sided general election after Bangladesh’s main opposition party – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – had boycotted the election. Parliamentary elections were announced in November 2023 amid growing protests by the opposition parties. They demanded Hasina’s resignation and the establishment of a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the polls.  

The just concluded general election in Bangladesh is crucial for India and Hasina’s re-election is imperative for internal security and the stability of India’s volatile northeast. The US influence is obvious given its innumerable stakes in Bangladesh. At the US-India 2+2 dialogue that concluded in November 2023, India shared its position of non-interference in Bangladesh’s domestic matters. Despite several challenges, the highs in India-Bangladesh bilateral ties has been India’s engagement with Bangladesh specifically through last year’s G20 Summit. Investing in regional connectivity initiatives, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement, could foster economic integration and strengthen diplomatic ties. This might help counterbalance the influence of external actors in the region. 

Bangladesh’s new foreign minister Hasan Mahmud held his first diplomatic engagement with Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pranay Verma and appreciated India’s stance over the election. Interestingly, unlike in most democracies, the elections in Bangladesh witnessed foreign players backing domestic political parties. US officials continued impressing upon the Bangladeshi government the need to create a conducive environment for elections. The US had taken everyone by surprise by taking on the role of an election commissioner in Dhaka on its own accord and actively engaging in the domestic politics of the country. Considering it is an internal issue of the country, the Bangladesh government clearly showed its dissatisfaction with the US involvement. 

For India, Bangladesh’s elections are an important event not only because Bangladesh shares borders with five Indian states and is an important diplomatic and security partner, but also because India would like to be the assertive player in the region. To address internal security challenges, India may collaborate closely with regional partners to counter the influence of fundamentalist forces. This could involve intelligence-sharing, joint counter-terrorism efforts, and diplomatic initiatives to promote stability. India will need to carefully navigate the complex geopolitical landscape to maintain its security and regional interests. 

Foreseeable Future: Socio-Political and Economic Impact 

The once vibrant, imperfect democracy held a third election amid an opposition boycott of the incumbent government. Hasina’s determination to hold the election on her terms will increase the risk of violence. While Hasina’s party, the Awami League (AL), may hold on to power in the short term, the opposition is likely to persist with its actions, and political and economic pressures could mount on the AL, with potentially violent repercussions

Many Bangladeshis complained of not having voted for 15 years given the growing discontent in their country. Though the populace is willing to participate in the electoral process, they are deprived of exercising their right by the political violence overhanging the country. Such practices are to have a more damaging impact on the governance. The gloss has come off the economy; since mid-2022, it has been grappling with a foreign-exchange shortage and high inflation, leaving many low-income workers struggling to make ends meet. Although caused partly by external factors, these economic troubles have been exacerbated by corruption and mismanagement, which keeps growing. The absence of a legitimate opposition to challenge the working and management of the current government hasn’t helped matters.

In previous elections, a caretaker government was needed because the Election Commission never had a legal basis in Bangladesh. Recounting the events of the past, Hasina’s government is resolved to make amendments through elections. Subsequently, active participation of the opposition in the election was essential, however, according to initial reports, there was only a 40 percent turnout. Free and fair elections are the main pillars of a democracy that ensure law and order in a democratic country. 

The US, China’s Intervention and India’s Position

Hasina has justified Dhaka’s rapport with New Delhi, underlining India’s efforts during the 1971 Bangladeshi Liberation War, apart from close cultural, ethnic, and linguistic ties. Surprisingly, India’s other neighbor China, with whom its ties have remained fraught, have similar perspectives on the Bangladesh election. Yao Wen, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, reiterated that China’s position remains an internal matter and any decision regarding this shall be taken by the Bangladeshis. Elections are not an issue where India and China usually find each other on the same page. 

Apart from Bangladesh being a part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, Beijing has financed several large-scale infrastructure projects in the country, including roads, river tunnels, railways, and power plants with Chinese President Xi Jinping committing $20 billion for key infrastructure-aimed loans and additional deals of over $13 billionChina’s trade relationship with Dhaka has also acted as a gold standard in Beijing’s balance of payments with an annual value of $24 billion in exports from China to Bangladesh. 

While China and India seem to have picked Hasina and the AL, the third and probably largest role to play in the just-concluded polls is the US. The US led the clarion call, echoed by other Western nations, that insisted Bangladesh hold an inclusive, democratic election under a caretaker government. In September 2023, the US initiated visa restrictions on Bangladeshi officials implicated in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”

It remains to be seen, what US President Joe Biden has called, the US’ commitment to ensuring democracy and freedom around the world. In Bangladesh’s 2014 general elections, the majority of seats remained uncontested due to the BNP’s boycott, leading to the AL’s victory. Following the elections, the US State Department openly pushed for fresh elections, calling for Dhaka to allow all citizens freedom of speech. Despite Hasina’s refusal to engage in talks with the BNP, the US affirmed its commitment to collaborate with the Hasina government, despite reservations about the elections.

Similarly, in 2018, an election marred by violence resulted in the incumbent AL securing 90 percent of the seats. Both the US and the European Union raised concerns about election-day irregularities, voter intimidation, and harassment. Despite these concerns, the relationship between Bangladesh and the US continued on a largely positive trajectory.

Bangladesh and Pakistan – Drawing Parallels

Bangladesh and Pakistan once were the two wings of a single country. Bangladesh achieved its long-cherished independence in 1971. International analysts and world leaders had then painted a doomsday picture of Bangladesh, many suggesting that the country would end up as a basket case. 

However, from thereon Bangladesh is now considered as an economic surprise and a “textbook example of development” for the world. Most surprisingly, Bangladesh is moving towards a ‘developed state’ by 2041 whereas Pakistan is still struggling to shore up its economic, political and social dimensions. In the key socio-economic sectors, Bangladesh is performing far better than Pakistan.

Indicators

Bangladesh

Pakistan

GDP per capita

$2,064

$1,130

GDP growth (during pandemic)

5.2%

0.4%

Forex reserves

$45 billion

$22.6 billion

Average lifetime

72 years

67 years

Child mortality rate

25 per thousand

59 per thousand

Primary education

98%

72%

Happiness Index

101

105

Source: Bangladesh-Pakistan Socio-economic Comparison (Source: World Bank, IMF and Trading Economics)

In the governance sector, Bangladesh is performing much better than Pakistan in achieving a viable democracy and e-governance. Though both countries have experienced a far from healthy influence of the military in politics even when civilian governments were in power, Bangladesh has become politically stable since the ninth parliamentary election in 2008.  On the other hand, Pakistan, with civilian prime ministers and an elected Parliament, is still far from being truly democratic. 

Way Forward

The Bangladeshi political climate is clouded with uncertainty. The election campaign was fraught with violence and was finally held amid boycotts from the opposition. The election saw a relatively lower voter turnout throwing a challenge to the country’s democracy. Bangladesh is a reliable ally of New Delhi. A politically stable Bangladesh will be in the interests of both countries.

Authors

Swati Sinha

Swati Sinha

Swati Sinha oversees South Asia and Southeast Asia under the International Relations vertical at the Ananta Centre.

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Saumya Tripathi

Saumya Tripathi

Saumya Tripathi is a Strategic Analyst working out of Delhi. 

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