Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (R) flashes the victory symbol after casting her vote at a polling station in Dhaka on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made history when she was elected for a record third term with a whopping majority. The Hasina-led Grand Alliance enjoyed a landslide victory, securing 288 out of the 298 parliamentary seats contested.

Hasina’s party, the Awami League (AL), won all the 259 seats it contested and the rest were won by its allies. The main opposition alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front), which includes the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), fought under the leadership of Kamal Hossain, head of the Gono Forum (People’s Forum), and managed to secure a meager seven seats, with the BNP getting five and Gono Forum grabbing two. However, the process has been marred by reports of rigging, with the opposition rejecting the outcome and calling for fresh elections.

Polling booth intimidation

According to various news reports, there were no opposition polling agents in various booths across the country. The opposition alleged that the ruling AL’s supporters forced opposition polling agents to leave booths. In addition, many opposition voters were scared to interact with members of the media standing outside the booths because AL supporters were listening to what voters were saying to reporters. A BBC correspondent reported that ballot boxes in Chittagong were filled before the polls opened, which is a serious allegation, raising questions about whether it was a free and fair process.

The Awami League has dismissed the allegations, but questions remain unanswered. Polling day clashes between the opposition and ruling party supporters left 20 people dead. The clashes indicate that the opposition is not as weak as the election results indicate. While it is true that the credibility of the opposition BNP is low given that its supremo, former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia, is serving a 17-year jail term due to corruption charges and was barred from contesting the recently held election. In Zia’s absence, the BNP sided with Kamal Hossain, leader of the Gono Forum, who is known for his secular credentials and headed the main opposition group Jatiya Oikya Front. Hossain was previously with the Awami League and also played a role in framing the national constitution under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and also the father of Sheikh Hasina.

However, Hossain’s pictures were overshadowed by images of Zia on the opposition’s billboards. Also, Jatiya Oikya Front was criticized for allowing 22 candidates for Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist Islamist party banned for alleged terrorist links, contesting the election under the banner of the paddy sheaf (the electoral symbol of the BNP). Even Hossain expressed regret, claiming that if he had known that Jamaat’s leaders would be given BNP tickets, he wouldn’t have been part of the alliance.

It is clear that the opposition alliance was full of contradictions – campaigning under a secular leader but giving nominations to extremist Islamists. It should be noted that the country had seen violent acts of oppression, especially against secularists and minorities (mainly the Hindus) who were targeted after the formation of the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance in 2001.

Polling day clashes between the opposition and ruling party supporters left 20 people dead

So, the BNP without Zia was leaderless, and by giving nominations to Islamic extremists, the alliance failed to appeal to the secular people of Bangladesh. Actually, Hasina’s victory was not unexpected, but the way the opposition alliance was decimated raises eyebrows. Also, the wide allegations of stuffed ballot boxes and intimidation against opposition voters by AL supporters intensifies concerns about the state of Bangladesh’s democracy.

Elections are essential for the survival of democracy as they offer voters a chance to choose their leaders. But merely holding elections is not enough – they must be free and fair. Voters shouldn’t be intimidated and their votes should have value. Elections come and go, with one side emerging as the winner and the other side ending up as the loser, but the outcome of an election should be above suspicion.

The recently concluded parliamentary polls marred by reports of ballot-rigging raises grave concerns about the weakening of democracy, but the Bangladesh Election Commission chief on Monday ruled out holding fresh elections. However, one thing is apparent: wide allegations of rigging eclipses the landslide victory of the Hasina-led Awami League because, ultimately, it is democracy that has emerged as the loser in this election, and this is an ominous sign.  

Sagarneel Sinha

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.