Bangladesh’s 2024 National Elections: A Pyrrhic Victory
From India to Russia to the United States, 2024 is the year of elections. Seven out of ten of the world’s most populous countries are going to the polls this year. In South Asia, five out of eight countries are holding elections. Bangladesh is the first, and the prognosis is not good.
The election on January 7 will have some of the trappings of democracy. Bangladesh has long had a theoretically independent Election Commission, an educated electorate, and a strong civil society and can boast a history of democratic elections in the first decades following independence in 1971. The country has enjoyed economic progress, a degree of women’s empowerment, and an overall increase in positive social metrics.
But this election will not be democratic, free, or fair. Toxic politics, crackdowns on dissent, and increasingly authoritarian rule in recent decades, especially in the past 15 years, have created the perfect environment for a violence-ridden and flawed election. The leader of the main opposition party, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, and her son, Tarique Rahman, have been convicted on criminal charges. Zia is now under house arrest, and Rahman is in exile in the United Kingdom. Given the country’s history of flawed elections, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) demanded that the country return to the tradition of a caretaker government to oversee elections. When that demand was rejected, the BNP declined to participate. Thus, the ruling Awami League is likely to remain in power without an electoral mandate—a pyrrhic victory given the potential long-term consequences for Bangladeshi democracy.
The idea of instituting a caretaker government to conduct elections was a popular initiative in 1996, borrowed from Pakistan and demanded, ironically, by the Awami League to protest abuses by the then incumbent BNP. The method was used in elections in 1996, 2001, and 2009 to good effect. Perhaps in testament to its efficacy, the Awami League–dominated parliament removed the provision in 2011.
Its renewal might be the best solution for the future in the deeply divided and vengeful Bangladeshi political scene. But it is difficult to imagine the current government giving up this free pass to power in the future.
The two major political parties have vied for dominance since independence. The Awami League, elected in 2008, has since tilted the scales of each election. Heavy-handed arrests, intimidation, and crackdowns on the opposition in recent months mean that the results of the upcoming elections are not only preordained but also likely to incur more bloodletting. Much of the BNP leadership is in jail or being harassed by the police. Harsh rhetoric is fueling political violence. Credible election observers will not be able to testify that the polling was free and fair with one of the two major parties not participating.
Saving the Election
The two institutions in the United States that traditionally monitor foreign elections, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, have decided not to send a monitoring team this year but instead are sponsoring a joint technical assessment team that will observe the level of violence and make post-election recommendations in the hopes of reducing such violence in the future. Though neither has formally said so, the two organizations seem to want to avoid giving legitimacy to a clearly flawed election. They have called strongly for moderation of political rhetoric on both sides, but no one is listening.
Some Bangladeshis are looking for a deus ex machina—a sudden, fortuitous change in events—to save them from a broken system. They have taken heart from the United States’ criticism of the process and its use of a visa sanction system to punish those individuals responsible for disrupting the electoral process. But U.S. efforts will not prevent a flawed election. The European Union, which has unusual economic clout in Bangladesh, has declined to use its leverage. The countries that count the most in Bangladesh these days, neighbors India and China, have made their own political calculations and decided that they are happy with the current government and comfortable with its continuation in power, no matter the means used to achieve that outcome.
Bangladesh’s politics is personal, revengeful, and violent. As bad as things seem in 2024, there is no prospect for improvement any time soon. The judiciary and military have been hollowed out over the years and make little pretense to being nonpartisan. New laws are criminalizing dissent. The recent conviction of microcredit pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus demonstrates the government’s willingness and ability to persecute anyone who it perceives to be a threat. This year’s election is likely to be another tragic step in Bangladesh’s descent into authoritarian one-party rule.
Donald Camp is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.