Colombo, November 1:

Bangladesh, as indeed the rest of South Asia, is at a crossroads. Parliamentary elections are due in January 2024 in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League is seeking a fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister.

Although the polls are a good two months away, the nation is already in the grip of high election fever with violence being unleashed on the streets of metropolitan Dhaka.

Hasina is pitching her strong claims to have made Bangladesh a “South Asian economic Tiger” and bravely countering big power geopolitical rivalry in the region, against the opposition’s shrill cry for democratic freedoms.

Both sides are backed by strong arguments. But as of now, Hasina is on stronger ground given the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s unsavoury past, its being in disarray organizationally in the absence of a credible leadership, and its alliance with the unsavoury  Jamaat-e-Islami, which has an anti-liberation past.

At the end of October, the streets of Dhaka were on fire, with the BNP demanding that the Awami League government resign forthwith allowing the next elections to be conducted by a non-party Caretaker Government (CTG).

The BNP has threatened to boycott the elections if its demands were not conceded here and now.

But the Hasina government rejected the demand saying that the CTG system was abolished by the 15 th.,Constitutional Amendment of 2011 after it had proved to be as biased as any system could be, besides being non-representative.

However, the opposition has been arguing, with some success, that free and fair elections cannot be guaranteed under a government led by Sheikh Hasina because previous elections under it were not exactly free and fair.

Domestic and foreign human rights groups have also charged the Hasina government with human rights violations and unleashing repressive laws. The US had sanctioned some top law enforcement officials and threatened to deny visas to officials complicit in rights violations.

Street Violence

Last week, the BNP indulged in widespread vandalism and arson in Dhaka to press its demands. Its cadres ransacked the residence of the Chief Justice of Bangladesh and the Judges Tower (having residences of other Judges of the Supreme Court). They torched and destroyed a number of police stations, brutally beat a policeman to death, torched ambulances and government vehicles at Rajarbag Police Hospital.

BNP cadres ransacked the Institute of Diploma Engineers and business properties on Bailey Road. A number of vehicles in front of the Audit Complex were burnt. Crude bombs, Molotov cocktails and bricks were thrown at the police. On-duty journalists were beaten, critically injuring at least ten of them. The Bangladesh Federal Journalists Union (BFUJ) had to issue a statement condemning the attacks.

There is, thus, an uneasy stalemate in Bangladesh. The credibility of the January 2024 elections is in question.

US Research Institution’s Survey

The US-based non-profit International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released the results of a survey on Bangladesh. Highlights of the findings were published by the prestigious US journal Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The IRI survey showed that more than 50% of the respondents felt that the country was heading in the “wrong direction”. Economic issues were at the bottom of the pessimism, with price hikes as the main issue. 36% said that they believed that the economic situation would worsen in 2024.

However, while people accepted the validity of the opposition’s argument for an interim Caretaker Government, they did not approve of the BNP’s insistence on boycotting the elections in the absence of a CTG.

Bangladeshis were frustrated with the state of their country’s politics, criticising both the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP on various counts.

Discontent about the state of democracy had risen significantly, with only a minority thinking that the upcoming elections would be free and fair. 45% said that they feared to express political opinions.

Ordinary people believed that political and civic institutions were not protecting their interests. 36% cited corruption as the single most important problem. More than eight in ten Bangladeshis said that there was a large gap between the political elite and the people, and about one-third wanted new political parties to emerge.

Interestingly, civil society was also viewed negatively: 62% said civil society groups represented only the interests of the elite.

Hasina Is Still Leads  

But despite all the complaints and the general acceptance of the opposition BNP’s arguments against the regime, Sheikh Hasina herself is preferred by an overwhelming majority. About 70% said that the Prime Minister was doing a good job.

People praised her contribution to infrastructure development and providing basic facilities like drinking water and education.

“If I look at development, then I see that (Sheikh Hasina) has done something,” said a female FGD participant from Khulna. “Like you see roads, the Padma Bridge, and the Metrorail.”

Bangladeshi analysts told this correspondent that thanks to Sheikh Hasina, there are enough and more opportunities for enterprising and hard-working Bangladeshis to make a living. And Bangladeshi youth have been quick to grasp opportunities and exploit them. People don’t just wail and sit at home. They seize the opportunities  around them.

Employment in the organised sector is thinning because of a fall in production due to world economic trends and the shortage of foreign exchange for importing raw materials and intermediate goods. But people are finding work in the large informal sector.

“For example, there is a vast informal transport sector with people running mini trucks and three-wheelers in the rural areas. Radical improvement in rural roads has given a boost to the transport sector and enabled economic mobility,” said an observer.

The youth have found innovative ways of employing themselves using the improved digital connectivity in Bangladesh, he added.

“Equipped with computers and mobile phones, youths have set up information centres even in remote areas to serve farmers and others in the informal sector.”

Thanks to agricultural development under Sheikh Hasina, there is no food shortage or grinding poverty in Bangladesh.

The average voter also sees virtue in the provision of a  stable government, which Sheikh Hasina has been giving since 2008. This is a powerful factor in her favour, besides her successful developmental initiatives which have turned Bangladesh from being a “basked case” in the 1970s to a “South Asian Tiger” in the 2020s.

In contrast, BNP regimes were violence-prone and directionless.

Good Chit from World Bank   

A World Bank report updated in October said that poverty had declined from 11.8% in 2010 to 5.0% in 2022, based on the international poverty line of U$2.15 a day (using 2017 Purchasing Power Parity exchange rate). Human development outcomes have improved along many dimensions.

“Bangladesh made a rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic supported by prudent macroeconomic policies with an estimated GDP growth of 6.0% in Financial Year 2023,” the World Bank said.

However, currently, the economy faces considerable challenges with rising inflation, energy shortages, a balance-of-payments deficit, and a revenue shortfall.

Real GDP growth is expected to slow in the Financial Year 2024 as ongoing import suppression measures disrupt economic activity. But growth is expected to re-accelerate over the medium term, as inflationary pressure eases, external conditions improve, and reform implementation gains momentum, the World Bank said.

“Over the medium term, the balance of payments is projected to return to a surplus as financial inflows recover and remittance inflows rise, supported by strong demand for workers in the Gulf region,” it added.

Amorphous Opposition

One of the greatest political advantages Sheikh Hasina enjoys over her opponents is that the opposition is atrophied and amorphous.

The BNP’s matriarch, Begum Khalida Zia, is old and invalid. Her son and anointed successor, Tarique Rahman, is a fugitive living in the UK.  In August this year, Rahman was sentenced by a Dhaka court to nine years in jail for having unaccounted wealth.

The BNP has wilfully weakened its own organization, by repeatedly boycotting elections. It had boycotted the 1986, 1988, and 2014 elections. In December 2022, its seven MPs in parliament resigned. It is now threatening to boycott the 2024 polls too.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNP’s steady ally, is well-organized, but lacks mass support because it is extremist and is associated with Pakistan, against which Bangladeshis had to fight for independence.

The Jamaat’s ideology is in contradiction with the basic ethos of Bangladesh, which is a combination of Islamic nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism.