Washington, DC – In the wake of the 2024 Bangladeshi elections, the nation’s political landscape stands triumphant and turbulent. Sheikh Hasina secured her fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister amidst controversy and unrest. The victory of the Awami League, led by Hasina, has been overshadowed by allegations of electoral irregularities, the boycotting of the elections by the main opposition party, and international concerns regarding the legitimacy of the electoral process.
With the final tally for the Awami League securing 223 seats and a modest showing for the Jatiya Party with 11 seats, Sheikh Hasina’s dominance in Bangladesh politics appears resolute. However, the absence of a significant opposition presence due to the boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) did cast a shadow over the democratic integrity of the 2024 elections.
The decision by the BNP to boycott the elections underscores deep-rooted political tensions within Bangladesh. Accusations of government repression, censorship, and the suppression of dissent have long plagued Hasina’s tenure. The BNP’s withdrawal from the electoral process further exacerbated these tensions, allowing critics to question the inclusivity and fairness of the democratic process.
Furthermore, reports of electoral violence and intimidation marred the lead-up to the elections and tarnished the image of Bangladeshi democracy in the West. Clashes between rival political factions, allegations of voter coercion, and concerns over the impartiality of law enforcement agencies cast doubt on the credibility of the electoral process.
Internationally, the legitimacy of the Bangladeshi elections has come under scrutiny, with Western nations expressing reservations about the conduct of the polls. Calls for transparency, accountability, and respect for democratic norms were issued by various foreign governments and organizations, highlighting the global significance of Bangladesh’s democratic journey.
In response to the allegations of electoral malpractice and the concerns raised by the international community, the Bangladeshi government has defended the integrity of the elections, citing voter turnout and the peaceful conduct of polling day as evidence of a free and fair process. However, the absence of meaningful opposition participation has left many unconvinced.
Neil Gold of Gold Institute, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington DC, says, “The US government and associates portraying Sheikh Hasina as a dictator, as someone who is a tyrant running to rig elections by arresting opposition leaders is absurd.” He points to her family history; her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a freedom fighter and first President of Independent Bangladesh, was killed in political violence. Gold emphasizes the contribution her family had made to Bangladesh. He also draws attention to numerous attempts that were made to assassinate her while she was jailed by her opponents, the BNP. He lauds her for allowing close to a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, risking her political future and complications with her own military and Burmese government.
Looking ahead, the victory of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League signals continuity in Bangladeshi politics but also raises profound questions about the health of the nation’s democracy. Addressing the grievances of opposition parties, safeguarding civil liberties, and upholding the principles of democratic governance will be paramount in rebuilding trust in Bangladesh’s electoral institutions and ensuring the country’s democratic resilience in the face of internal discord and external scrutiny.
As Bangladesh navigates the aftermath of the 2024 elections, the path forward remains fraught with challenges, yet opportunities abound for reconciliation, reform, and the reaffirmation of democratic values.
Neil Gold adds, “I think that with the Prime Minister is trying to do is she’s trying to run a civil society and she’s trying to run a civil government these results are going to have a beyond Bangladesh. So, you want to have been able to move forward as it will have implications for what the Americans called the Indo-Pacific theater.”
In addition to the concerns raised by Western governments over the legitimacy of the Bangladeshi elections, experts in the West have offered nuanced perspectives on the electoral dynamics and their implications for the region. Some analysts argue that Sheikh Hasina’s victory and the Awami League’s dominance can be partly attributed to missteps by opposition parties, such as the boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). This view posits that the absence of a strong opposition presence gave the Awami League a significant advantage, raising questions about the level playing field necessary for democratic competition.
Moreover, from a geopolitical standpoint, Sheikh Hasina emerges as a pivotal player in the increasingly contested South Asian region. With China’s growing influence and ambitions in the area, mainly through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the alignment of regional powers takes on added significance for Western governments seeking to maintain strategic interests in the region. Experts from an event hosted by Gold Institute suggest that Sheikh Hasina could serve as a reliable and trusted partner for the West, given her long-standing ties with traditional Western allies and her government’s track record of cooperation on security, counterterrorism, and economic development.
The strategic importance of Bangladesh, situated at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, cannot be overstated in the geopolitical calculus of major powers. As China seeks to expand its footprint in the region through infrastructure projects and economic investments, the role of key regional actors like Bangladesh becomes increasingly vital in shaping the geopolitical landscape. Sheikh Hasina’s continued leadership, with her firm grip on power and her party’s electoral mandate, positions Bangladesh as a significant player in the broader geopolitical competition unfolding in South Asia.
For Western governments grappling with the strategic implications of China’s rise and the shifting dynamics of regional power, cultivating strong ties with leaders like Sheikh Hasina represents a strategic imperative. Recognizing Bangladesh’s strategic importance and the leadership role of Sheikh Hasina in navigating these complex geopolitical waters, Western policymakers may seek to engage constructively with the Bangladeshi government, bolstering partnerships and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
In light of these considerations, the 2024 Bangladeshi elections not only raise questions about the state of democracy within the country but also underscore the broader geopolitical significance of Bangladesh in the evolving strategic landscape of South Asia. Balancing the imperatives of democratic governance with strategic interests and geopolitical realities will be a delicate task for both Bangladeshi policymakers and their international counterparts in the years to come.
Rohit Sharma is a Senior Journalist who has lived in Washington DC since 2007. He currently is a contributor to Dainik Bhaskar, the world's third largest newspaper by readership. His opinion pieces feature on News 9 and The Quint. He has been invited as guest on the BBC, NDTV, India Today, AajTak, Times Now, Republic, Zee news and others. His work has featured in six Indian Languages.