Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s current prime minister, is expected to win her fourth consecutive term, a political phenomenon that has never been seen before in the country. Citizens will vote on Sunday to decide whether Hasina will be re-elected despite accusations of severe human rights violations.
The 71-year-old prime minister faces an opposition coalition led by the 82-year-old human rights lawyer and former foreign minister, Kamal Hossain. Former prime minister Khaleda Zia, another prominent political figure and Hasina’s long-time rival, however, is not eligible to run due to her previous corruption record which has led to a 17-year sentence.
Hossain was once a trusted advisor of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father and the nation’s first-ever president. But this time, he is no longer an ally of the family but rather a forceful challenger. Polls show his popularity among middle-class citizens who are growing increasingly suspicious of Hasina’s iron-fist rule.
Violence and chaos again plague the country as Election Day approaches. Back in the 2014 election, over half of the parliament seats went uncontested as a result of Bangladesh National party’s boycott of the election and many were killed in violent outbreaks.
This year, opposition leaders including Zia were sentenced on questionable charges or simply disappeared. Two members of the Awami League were murdered as they conducted their campaigns. Many more politicians and citizens were injured as rallies turned violent.
According to Hossain, more than 70 parliamentary candidates from his opposition coalition were so afraid of police retaliation that they did not dare openly campaign for themselves.
“Police harassment of opposition activists has reached unprecedented levels,” he told the Guardian. Last month, as he head to a national martyrs’ monument, his own war was attacked by supporters of the ruling party.
Besides open violence, the government also imposed stricter censorship to hinder information exchange on the Internet that might put the ruling party at a disadvantage. Claiming to counter “propaganda,” authorities slowed down all 3G and 4G services across the country. On Thursday, services stopped altogether for ten hours.
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,” an official from the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) told AFP. He indicated that services could be suspended again during the final days leading to the national election.
Hasina’s main campaign strategy centered on the country’s rapid economic development. Since 2009, Bangladesh’s average growth rate has maintained a high level of above 6 percent and its per-capita incomes has more than tripled, making it one of the fastest-growing developing countries in the world.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is especially crucial to its economy. The gigantic $20 billion industry has created and sustained approximately 4.5 billion jobs. As a result, labour participation rate among young females almost doubled. Coupled with better maternal and child health services, Bangladesh’s life expectancy has increased to 72 years.
The World Bank published a favorable report that outlined the country’s consistent progress on not only life expectancy but also education, national income and the number of people who had been lifted out of extreme poverty.
However, many believed that economic progress could not justify the nation’s lack of growth in other areas.
“We have the fastest growth of ultra-rich in the world,” said Shahab Enam Khan from Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. “But that doesn’t mean the lower strata has benefited.”
Ali Riaz, a politics professor from Illinois State University politics professor, agreed that economic growth was not everything.
“Development is not only economic growth, it has a far broader meaning which includes human rights, rule of law, inclusivity, accountability and good governance, all (of which) seem to be missing here,” he said.
Featured image via Anupam Nath/AP