'They Threaten Everyone.' Sheikh Hasina's Landslide Win in Bangladesh Marred by Voter Suppression
On Sunday, about a dozen people stood patiently outside a small school courtyard in the historic old city of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. It was election day, but the gates were closed.
“Lunch break,” a poll worker explained through a small window through the entrance of the Goyal Ghat Government Primary School, smiling politely. But by 3.10pm in the afternoon, the explanation had changed. “We’ve already started to count,” a policeman said. The polls had been supposed to close at 4.
On Monday morning, an election official declared that the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had won Sunday’s vote in a landslide, paving the way for her Awami League party to stay in power and ensuring her a third term as head of government.
But the result has been clouded by pre-election violence and allegations of a crackdown on the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as well as widespread reports of vote-rigging and intimidation on election day, some of which was observed by TIME on the ground.
Hasina’s party and its allies secured 288 out of 300 contested seats. The BNP, which won only seven, has called the election “farcical” and demanded a do-over. The party boycotted the last election in 2014, and its leader, Khaleda Zia, is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence for corruption which she says is politically motivated.
In her absence, the opposition coalition is being led by former Hasina ally Kamal Hossain, who told local media he heard ballot boxes had been stuffed. Nazrul Islam Khan, a standing committee leader of the BNP, told TIME that “the extent to which the government has rigged these elections is beyond imagination.” Police said at least 17 people had been killed in clashes between rival supporters.
Hasina rejected all allegations of impropriety, at a briefing with journalists and election observers on Monday evening. Her advisor H T Imam called it “one of the best elections held ever.“
The Bangladeshi election had been touted as one of the world’s biggest democratic exercises, with more than 104 million registered voters. In the past twenty years, power has shifted back and forth between the BNP and the more pro-India Awami League. Under Hasina, the country has lifted itself out of poverty and stablilized politically and economically, with a 6% rate of growth — but the government has also been accused by rights groups of creeping oppression.
The buildup to the vote was overshadowed by a draconian new digital security act passed in the fall, which human rights groups say limits freedom of expression and criticism of the government.
Bangladeshi editors and journalists say it’s increasingly difficult to publish news that embarrasses the government. Some estimate they self-censor at least two-thirds of their stories. “I am not sure if I want to stay in this country now that the Awami League will feel even more entitled to stifle dissent,” says one TV journalist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
And on social media, criticism of the government is carefully shrouded in irony. “Can someone please tell me if my vote was already cast? Then I don’t have to get out of bed this morning”, a law student posted on Facebook on election day.
On Sunday, evidence of voter disruption was widespread. At one polling station at Kabi Nazrul Islam College in Old Dhaka, TIME was harassed by dozens of government supporters and forced to delete a video showing a woman who got into a fight with poll workers. Her lips trembled with rage as she explained that someone from the station pressed the button of the newly introduced digital voting machine for her.
It wasn’t just BNP supporters who claimed they were prevented from voting. “I wanted to vote for the Awami League anyway, but when I reached the polling station they told me my vote had already been cast”, said one woman who asked TIME not to publish her name for fear of reprisals.
The government also banned motor vehicles from the roads on election day, meaning the ordinarily clogged streets of Dhaka were so empty that people took selfies on speed bumps. That made it difficult for some voters to get to their polling centers. “If I spend money to return to my village in the countryside, I don’t have enough to spend on food,” explained rickshaw driver Anisul Mandal.
A student movement that shook the capital last summer was seen as a sign that many ordinary Bangladeshis were becoming increasingly frustrated with their ruling class, which has been dominated by the two major parties for decades.
Ishtiaq, a 24-year-old law student from Dhaka University cast his vote for a candidate running on a leftist alliance ticket. He knew his candidate didn’t stand a chance, he says, but wanted to register his frustration at the two-party system. “When the BNP was in power, they weren’t much better than the Awami League,” he says.
Many others did not — or were not able — to vote at all. At the complaint center of the BNP opposition party, activist Mozammal Hossain took a call from someone reporting voting agents were kicked out of the polling station by members of the government-loyal student group in his constituency. “Not that we wouldn’t have expected this,“ he said.
Hossain is one of a dozen BNP activists who have been documenting fraud, arrests, voter harassment and violence during these elections. He says his parents were recently harassed by police for their son’s work. “They threaten everyone,” he said.
At the school in Dhaka, the election official overseeing the polls, Salah Uddin, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. “Everything is going well,” he told TIME as he ushered us outside the premises. A trickle of voters were finally allowed inside, only to be told that the polls had closed. “We got zero complaints,” Uddin says, “no problems.”
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