Bangladesh’s Hasina celebrates ‘absolute victory’ after polls without opposition
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AFP)— Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Monday dismissed the opposition’s criticism of the country’s general election as “illegitimate” as she celebrated securing her fifth term in power.
Hasina has presided over breakneck economic growth in a country once beset by grinding poverty, but her government has been accused of rampant human rights abuses and a ruthless crackdown on dissent.
“The election was free and fair,” Hasina told reporters in her first comments since the vote on Sunday, where her party took three-quarters of seats in parliament after polls boycotted by the opposition, with the turnout a meagre 41.8 percent.
“If any party does not participate in the election, it does not mean there is no democracy,” she said, adding that “those who want to criticise can criticise”.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has seen its ranks diminished by mass arrests, called a general strike and, along with dozens of others, refused to participate.
Senior BNP leader Moyeen Khan called it a “fake election” and said the government was “illegitimate”, he told reporters in Dhaka on Monday.
Hasina, 76, branded the BNP “a terrorist organisation”.
UN rights chief Volker Turk on Monday implored the government to “ensure that the human rights of all Bangladeshis are fully taken into account”.
Bangladesh was the first in key South Asian elections this year where embattled opposition parties face a tough battle, including in Pakistan, where jailed former prime minister Imran Khan has been rejected as a candidate, and in neighbouring India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday he had called Hasina and congratulated her on her “historic” victory, praising the “successful conduct” of the polls.
Election Commission secretary Moniruzzaman Talukder said Hasina’s party had won 222 seats in Sunday’s polls — revised down by a seat from an earlier declared 223 — but the support of other lawmakers means her actual control over the 300-seat parliament is even higher, analysts said.
“This is a one-party parliament,” Ali Riaz of Illinois State University told AFP, adding that “only the allies of the Awami League had the opportunity to participate”.
The Jatiya Party, which won 11 seats, is a long-time ally of Hasina’s Awami League, as are many of the 61 independent candidates, said Mubashar Hasan, a political scientist at the University of Oslo.
“This election has legitimised one-party rule in the country with no credible and effective opposition in the parliament,” Hasan told AFP.
“Almost all the independent candidates who won the parliamentary seats are also part of the Awami League.”
Among the victors was Bangladesh cricket team captain Shakib Al Hasan, who won a seat for the ruling party.
Hasina’s party faced almost no effective rivals in the seats it contested, but it avoided fielding candidates in a few constituencies, in an apparent effort to avoid the legislature being branded a one-party institution.
“It was a farce election, like a local neighbourhood or a market association election,” said Mohammad Shahin, 42, who pulls a rickshaw.
Opposition activists staged a protest Monday in Dhaka, wearing black gags over their mouths to condemn the election.
BNP head Tarique Rahman, speaking from Britain where he lives in exile, called the result “a disgrace to the democratic aspirations of Bangladesh”, in a social media post, alleging he had seen “disturbing pictures and videos” backing his claims.
Meenakshi Ganguly, from Human Rights Watch, said the government had failed to reassure opposition supporters that the polls were fair, warning that “many fear a further crackdown”.
Envoys from China and Russia were among the first to congratulate Hasina, visiting her at home on Monday and praising her “absolute victory”, her office said in a statement.
Beijing’s ambassador Yao Wen praised a “long-established friendship” with Dhaka in a statement, underlining the deepening ties during Hasina’s 15-year-long rule.
Politics in the country of 170 million people has long been dominated by the rivalry between Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding leader, and two-time premier Khaleda Zia, wife of a former military ruler.
Hasina has been the decisive victor since returning to power in a 2009 landslide, with two subsequent polls accompanied by widespread irregularities and accusations of rigging.
Zia, 78, was convicted of graft in 2018 and is now in ailing health at a hospital in Dhaka. BNP head Rahman is her son.