Bangladeshis deserve a real say in their future

Growth is important, but it should not come at the expense of liberty and democracy

TOPSHOT - Bangladeshi army personnel drive a military vehicle through a street adorned with election posters near a polling station in Dhaka on December 30, 2018.  Bangladesh headed to the polls on December 30 following a weeks-long campaign that was dominated by deadly violence and allegations of a crackdown on thousands of opposition activists. / AFP / Munir UZ ZAMAN
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Dynasties are a fixture of south Asian politics. From the Sharifs and the Bhuttos in Pakistan to the Gandhis in India, families have steered national politics in the region for decades. Bangladesh, whose 160-million-strong population headed to the polls yesterday, is no different. This election is, in effect, a referendum on the decade-long tenure of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of assassinated president and liberation hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Her main opponent, Khaleda Zia, a former leader herself and the wife of another, currently languishes in jail on what she deems politically motivated charges.

There were simultaneous elections yesterday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two years late, owing to the refusal of Joseph Kabila, himself the son of a president, to step down, they also prove that with dynasties comes a distaste for relinquishing power.

Since achieving independence in 1971, military dictatorship, assassinations and coups have been the norm in Bangladesh.

This time, many observers and activists fear the elections will not be fair, while Human Rights Watch has identified a campaign of intimidation by Ms Hasina’s Awami League party. Before the vote some 8,200 opposition candidates, members and supporters were arrested, 600,000 troops were deployed, 3G and 4G networks were dismantled, and this month the electoral commission briefly barred nearly 300 opposition candidates from running, before reversing its decision. Meanwhile, at least 15 were killed in election day violence and reports of ballot stuffing emerged yesterday before a single vote had been cast  All the ingredients for a crooked election are there.  

After a decade of Awami League rule, Bangladeshis have plenty to cheer. Economic growth has exceeded that of Pakistan and India, with an average of 6.3 per cent annually, spurred by a booming garments industry. Meanwhile, progress has been made on key development indicators, including child mortality and school attendance. Ms Hasina was rightly praised, also, for accommodating 700,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing in neighbouring Myanmar.

But, against the backdrop of rampant corruption and political violence, the prime minister has grown increasingly authoritarian. Today, she wears the badge proudly, convinced that human rights and democracy are fringe concerns.

Faced with a host of challenges, not least the threat of devastating climate change, Bangladeshis need not only growth, but stability and a say in their own future. With the eyes of the world on Dhaka, this election is a critical test.