Bangladesh election: Sheikh Hasina heads for tainted victory
Prime minister presides over burgeoning economy but is accused of holding onto power partly by jailing, disappearing or silencing opposition
Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina speaks ahead of Sunday’s election, which has been described as the ‘most-stifled’ in half a century. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Bangladeshis will vote on Sunday on whether to grant a record third consecutive term to a prime minister who has overseen one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but whose government is accused of rampant human rights abuses.
Sheikh Hasina, 71, is favoured to remain PM after a bloody election campaign that opposition activists have described as the most stifled in the 47 years since her father became the country’s first leader.
Scores of opposition figures including Hasina’s major rival, Khaled Zia, have been jailed or disappeared in the months leading to the election. International election monitors and press freedom groups have complained of unnecessary delays in issuing visas.
“Police harassment of opposition activists has reached unprecedented levels,” Kamal Hossain, a human rights lawyer who is serving as the candidate of the joint opposition, told the Guardian.
Hossain, 82, said around 70 candidates from an alliance of opposition parties were too afraid to campaign in their constituencies after a spate of attacks on rallies and party offices by armed thugs.
The opposition leader’s own car was attacked – allegedly by supporters of the ruling Awami League – as he was driving towards a national martyrs’ monument earlier this month.
Hasina is hoping Bangladesh’s 100 million voters will ignore the violence and instead focus on the country’s extraordinary economic progress including a tripling of per-capita incomes since 2009 and an annual average growth rate above 6% in the past decade, the fastest in the developing world.
Much of that growth has been fuelled by the country’s $20bn garment industry and the 4.5m jobs it sustains. The industry is credited with a doubling labour force participation among young women, which has flowed into maternal and child health benefits that have raised the country’s life expectancy to 72 years, higher than in neighbouring India and Pakistan.
Despite the buoyant balance sheet, the capital, Dhaka, has been shut down twice this year by protests that some analysts say are evidence of a wider malaise, which could be registered at the ballot boxes if Sunday’s voting is unimpeded.
“We have the fastest growth of ultra-rich in the world,” said Shahab Enam Khan, the research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. “But that doesn’t mean the lower strata has benefited.”
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Bangladeshi workers work under posters of election candidates who have been shut out by mainstream media and are too scared to campaign on the streets. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrations in August were stoked by popular outrage at unsafe driving and a wider culture of impunity, which Khan said were “invisible” factors that may prove decisive. “Public security issues in terms of law and order, how the law is being enforced, whether people have confidence in the judiciary, will be determinate.”
Earlier Bangladeshi governments have also been accused of trampling human rights, but watchdog groups say Hasina’s repression has been more extensive and effective. Hundreds of people have been forcibly disappeared or detained in secret prisons and nearly 450 people have been shot dead by police amid a crackdown on the narcotics trade this year, according to the human rights group Odhikar.
Bangladesh’s authorities also severely restricted internet services across the country in an effort to fight “propaganda” ahead of the election.
Internet services were slowed across the country with 3G and 4G services suspended for several hours on Thursday, a Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) official said.
“We asked telecom operators to halt 3G and 4G services temporarily on Thursday night. We have done it to prevent propaganda and misleading content spreading on the internet,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said higher speed internet services resumed on Friday morning after a 10-hour blackout, but could be suspended again later in the day.
The authoritarianism has been accelerated by a uniquely weak period for the country’s second major political force, the conservative Bangladesh National party, which has traditionally traded power with the ostensibly secular and leftwing Awami League in the periods when Bangladesh has not been ruled by military government.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 polls which it claimed would be rigged and so has no presence in parliament. Zia, its leader, was recently jailed for 12 years on corruption charges and her son, Tarique Rahman, was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in October for a plot to assassinate Hasina. Rahman lives in exile in London.
Despite the BNP’s weakness, Hasina’s party has taken no chances, bringing an estimated 300,000 cases against the major opposition party in the run up to the election and ordering thousands of its members to be arrested.
Facebook told Associated Press this week it had taken down 15 pages that it said were spreading pro-Hasina fake news in the run up to the poll.
Facebook worked with a threat intelligence company that determined the people who created and managed the sites were “associated with the government”, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.
Twitter later said it had suspended 15 accounts in Bangladesh, most with fewer than 50 followers, “for engaging in coordinated platform manipulation”.
“Based on our initial analysis, it appears that some of these accounts may have ties to state-sponsored actors,” the company said.