Sheikh Hasina and the Future of Democracy in Bangladesh

16 minute read

Sheikh Hasina floats into the reception room of her official residence swathed in a luxurious silk sari, the personification of iron fist in velvet glove. At 76 years old and silver-haired, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister is a political phenomenon who has guided the rise of this nation of 170 million from rustic jute producer into the Asia-Pacific’s fastest-expanding economy over the past decade.

In office since 2009, after an earlier term from 1996 to 2001, she is the world’s longest-serving female head of government and credited with subduing both resurgent Islamists and a once meddlesome military. Having already won more elections than Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, Hasina is determined to extend that run at the ballot box in January. “I am confident that my people are with me,” she says in an interview with TIME in September. “They’re my main strength.”

Read More: 5 Takeaways from TIME’s Interview with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Few rebuttals are as stark as the 19 assassination attempts that Hasina has weathered over the years. In recent months, supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have clashed with security forces, leading to hundreds of arrests, police vehicles and public buses set ablaze, and several people killed. The BNP has vowed to boycott the election as they did in both 2014 and 2018 unless Hasina hands power to a caretaker government to shepherd elections. (Their request has historical precedent but is no longer required following a constitutional amendment.)

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Bangladesh has taken an authoritarian turn under Hasina’s Awami League party. The last two elections were condemned by the U.S., E.U. and others for significant irregularities, including stuffed ballot boxes and thousands of phantom voters. (She won 84% and 82% of the vote, respectively.) Today, Khaleda Zia, two-time former Premier and BNP leader, sits gravely ill under house arrest on dubious corruption charges. Meanwhile, BNP workers have been hit by a staggering 4 million legal cases, while independent journalists and civil society also complain of vindictive harassment. Critics say January’s vote is tantamount to a coronation and Hasina to a dictator.

Bangladesh Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Sarker Protick for TIME

“The ruling party is controlling all the state machinery, whether it’s the law enforcement agencies or the judiciary,” says BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who has been charged in 93 cases—including vandalism and murder—and imprisoned nine times. “Whenever we raise our voices, they oppress us.”

Bangladesh matters. It is the largest single contributor to U.N. peacekeepers and regularly joins exercises with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Its vibrant diaspora is intrinsic to business and artistic communities across Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The U.S. is the biggest source of foreign direct investment and the top destination for Bangladeshi exports. And as one of the few developing world leaders to (albeit belatedly) condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Hasina has proven herself useful for the West, not least for taking in some 1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar.

But Washington is concerned about Bangladesh’s drift toward despotism. Hasina was not invited to the latest two U.S.-hosted Summit for Democracy gatherings, and in May the country unveiled visa restrictions on any Bangladeshi undermining elections. In response, Hasina told parliament the U.S. was “trying to eliminate democracy” by engineering her ouster. Asked about her allegation, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter D. Haas insists Washington is “scrupulous about not picking sides.”

But at a time when the U.S. is desperate to counter China’s growing regional footprint at every turn, the stridency of American official policy is telling. “The U.S. seems to have made Bangladesh a test case for its democracy-promotion policy overseas,” says Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “The big risk is that all this pressure will backfire and prompt the government to double down and do everything possible to stay in power.”

What a fourth straight term for Hasina would mean for Bangladesh is a polarizing question. Most Americans know the country only from labels sewn into their tees and pants, but it’s a crucible that mixes a Muslim population bigger than any Middle Eastern nation with a significant minority of some 10% Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others. Although constitutionally secular, a military dictator in 1988 made Islam the state religion, creating a paradox that has proved fertile ground for radical fundamentalists.

Hasina’s economic achievements are impressive. Bangladesh has gone from struggling to feed its people to a food exporter with a GDP rising from $71 billion in 2006 to $460 billion in 2022, making it South Asia’s second largest economy after India. Social indicators have also improved, with 98% of girls today receiving primary education. Bangladesh is moving into high-tech manufacturing, allowing international firms like Samsung to extricate supply chains from China. “We need to improve, of course, when it comes to democracy, human rights, free speech,” says Professor Mohammad Ali Arafat, an Awami League lawmaker from central Dhaka. “But we have come a long way.”

Hasina waves at followers as she begins the second phase of a train march to muster support to topple the government in September 1994.
Hasina waves at followers as she begins the second phase of a train march to muster support to topple the government in September 1994.Rafiquar Rahman—Reuters

Bangladesh also sits at the front line of the climate crisis. The nation formerly known as East Pakistan may have been forged in the crackle and smoke of a 1971 civil war, but it is water that has dictated life here for millennia. From inland, snowmelt from the towering Himalayas funnels a mind-boggling 165 trillion gallons through Bangladesh’s rivers each year. From the skies, regular cyclones batter a low-lying delta that is 80% floodplain, causing some $1 billion of damage annually. And increasingly, rising seas levels threaten the lives and livelihoods of a population over four times the size of California, crammed into a territory smaller than Illinois. Hasina has championed demands for developed countries to provide their developing peers $100 billion annually until 2025 for climate resilience, a pledge so far unfulfilled. “We don’t want to only receive promises,” she says. “Developed countries should come forward.”

Yet if Bangladeshi life is ruled by water, its politics is awash in blood. For the last half-century, two families and the women who now lead them have been locked in a bitter feud. On one side is Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, otherwise known as simply Sheikh Mujib—Bangladesh’s first president, who was assassinated in an army coup in 1975 alongside 17 of his close relatives. (Hasina likely only survived as she was in Europe at the time.) On the other side is Khaleda Zia, widow of former army chief and BNP founder Ziaur Rahman, who led the country from Mujib’s assassination until his own in 1981.

Both these dynastic matriarchs draw legitimacy from their family’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation struggle while minimizing the other’s. Hasina derides the BNP as a “terrorist party,” which “never believed in democracy,” stressing its creation by a former junta. “Khalid Zia ruled like a military dictator,” she says with undisguised venom. Hasina highlights the violence BNP supporters have caused in arson attacks following the disputed 2018 election. The BNP, by contrast, points to the systemic repression of their party and trumped-up charges against its leadership. In truth, bloodletting is sadly common on all sides. “Bangladeshi politics has often included street violence,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “That is true for all major political parties.”

Hasina cites her government’s introduction of transparent ballot boxes and registration papers linked to ID cards and biometric data as evidence of her commitment to free elections. She also claims to have democracy in her DNA. After her father’s murder, Hasina and her sister took refuge in the home of Bangladesh’s ambassador to West Germany before eventually being granted political asylum in India. (In 1967, she married physicist M. A. Wazed Miah and the pair had two children before his death in 2009.) Hasina was only permitted to return to Bangladesh in 1981, when she was mobbed by thousands of Awami League supporters and spent the following years agitating for popular elections and the end of military rule. “It was our struggle,” she says. “The right to vote, the right to food. That was our slogan.”

Bangladesh's then newly appointed caretaker government head ex-Chief Justice Habibur Rahman, center, is flanked by outgoing prime Minister Khaleda Zia, left, and then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, right at the swearing-in for Rahman at the presidential palace on March 30. Rahman has been appointed as chief of the interim administration to oversee general elections expected in May or June.
Former Chief Justice Habibur Rahman, center, is flanked by outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, left, and then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, right, at the swearing in for Rahman at the presidential palace on March 30. Rahman was appointed as chief of the interim administration to oversee general elections.Reuters

But much can change over four decades and today Bangladesh’s opposition complains of being unable to campaign on the street or express themselves in the media without fear of arrest, assault, or legal challenge. “It’s not just the day of elections that matters for free and fair elections,” says Ambassador Haas. “It is the entire process and environment leading up to it.”

Between 1991 and 2008 power switched between the BNP and Awami league at every election, and anti-incumbency alone means there’s every chance that Hasina would be voted out in a fair ballot. “Today people are suffering,” one rickshaw driver in Dhaka complained to TIME, saying that his daily wage of 400 taka ($3.50) can barely cover the cost of cooking oil and lentils for his wife and two children. “[Hasina] comes from a great family but her father cannot help us today.”

The burning issue for Hasina is that were she removed from power she would likely encounter the same kind of repressive retribution that her government is currently inflicting. “The Awami League are all so scared,” says Zillur Rahman, the executive director of the Dhaka-based Centre for Governance Studies think tank and a talk show host. “They don’t have a safe exit.”

Bangladesh’s oppressive security landscape was largely shaped by the events of July 1, 2016. At 9:40 pm, five men armed with bombs, pistols, assault rifles, and machetes strode into Holy Bakery in Dhaka’s well-heeled Gulshan district, a popular spot for nearby embassy workers and the Bangladeshi elite. Bellowing “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic), they opened fire indiscriminately on the mainly foreign clientele and hurled grenades. Customers dove under tables while panicked staff members fled across rooftops or locked themselves in a restroom.

The attackers complained that Westerners’ skimpy clothes and taste for alcohol were “encouraging local people to do the same thing,” according to witnesses. They then tortured and killed any hostage that couldn’t recite the Koran. When the siege was finally ended by a police raid, a total of 22 civilians—mainly locals, Italians, and Japanese—alongside five terrorists and two police officers were confirmed killed. Fifty others, mainly police, were injured.

It was the nadir amid a spike in ISIS-inspired Islamic terrorism that besieged Bangladesh, with more than 30 violent attacks targeting Hindus, academics, and secularist writers and bloggers over the previous 12 months. The atmosphere of fear became so pervasive that many restaurants banned foreign customers lest they become another target. Today, the leafy street where that carnage unfolded hosts only plush condos and a medical clinic. Yet the memory of the violence still provides legitimacy for Hasina’s security crackdown that persists to this day.

Bangladesh began Islamification in earnest under Ziaur Rahman in 1977. His BNP today remains allied with more conservative groups, while Bangladesh’s religious minorities have traditionally favored the Awami League. “Dhaka has used counterterrorism imperatives as a pretext to crack down harder on the Islamist elements of the opposition,” says Kugelman, of the Wilson center. Counterterrorism today provides a fig leaf for broad state repression. Ganguly calls actions by police at recent BNP rallies “provocative … which has of course led to retaliation.”

Police stand guard as Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists gather in Dhaka ahead of a rally to demand Hasina’s resignation in December 2022.
Police stand guard as Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists gather in Dhaka ahead of a rally to demand Hasina’s resignation in December 2022.Rehman Asad—AFP/Getty Images

But it’s not just rocks and sticks on the street; Bangladesh’s judicial institutions have increasingly targeted any slight criticism of Hasina’s perceived enemies. On Sept. 15, two prominent human rights activists who tracked extrajudicial killings and disappearances were sentenced to two years in prison on nebulous charges, prompting an outcry from foreign governments including the U.S. Journalists, cartoonists, and students have also been targeted.

In August, more than 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates including Barack Obama penned an open letter urging Hasina to end the “continuous judicial harassment” of Bangladesh’s 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered poverty-reducing microcredit. Hasina has pursued 174 charges including labor law violations, corruption, and money laundering against Yunus, whom she derides as a “bloodsucker.”

It’s a bizarre vendetta that stokes accusations of festering paranoia. Hasina may insist her record is exemplary—“food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare, job opportunities,” she reels off. “I’m doing it and I have done it”—but scratch the surface and things don’t look quite so rosy. Freedom House considers Bangladesh “partially free” and its economy is still reliant on agriculture, cheap garment exports, and the nearly $25 billion sent home from the 14 million-strong diaspora every year. Those remittances have played a key role in helping ease economic pressure, particularly as prices for fuel and other essential commodities have soared since the invasion of Ukraine.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Bangladesh 147 out of 180 countries worldwide—level with Iran and one place above Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Hasina boasts that now in Bangladesh “every person has a mobile phone” and that the nation is due in 2026 to graduate from the U.N. grouping of Least Developed Nations. But that is by any measure an extremely low bar; by then the only remaining Asian members would be Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.

And while Hasina speaks dismissively of Dhaka’s “slum people,” saying the nation’s idyllic villages are a “different scenario,” that begs the question why 2,000 people every day abandon the countryside for the overcrowded capital. Near double-digit inflation is hurting ordinary Bangladeshis while depleted foreign reserves have impacted firms’ ability to trade. “It’s a tough place to do business,” says Ambassador Haas, citing endemic corruption, labor problems, and the currency crisis. “U.S. companies [are] also looking at a dozen other countries for their possible investments … so it’s really important that Bangladesh be competitive.”

Bangladesh’s critical role on the world stage is embodied by the Rohingya crisis. Drive an hour south of the seaside resort of Cox’s Bazar and a collection of bamboo huts covered with plastic sheeting emerges from the rolling countryside. Inside Kutupalong refugee camp, around one million stateless Rohingya refugees eke out a meager existence after fleeing government pogroms in western Myanmar, which claimed an estimated 24,000 lives. Children wallop threadbare soccer balls while women in niqab veils barter over samosas and sour plums. Those that fled brought little with them other than tales of slaughter, arson, and rape.

Bangladesh’s compassionate response to the Rohingya meant that the international community felt reluctant to raise other human rights concerns—a blind eye that “would have continued except abuses in the domestic scene became very, very acute,” says Ganguly. But today, the ramping up of Western pressure as the elections approach is correlating with deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions. “Now there’s even more pressure on our people to return,” says refugee Shorif Hussein, 54. “Bangladesh doesn’t care if we die or whatever. They just want to get our people off their land.”

Read More: ‘There Is No Hope’: Death and Desperation Take Over the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

When asked about the Rohingya, Hasina reminds the world that “for six years my sister and myself lived outside the country as refugees, so we can feel their sorrow and pain.” But her government has proved deaf to demands to allow the refugees formal education and legitimate ways to earn a livelihood. Instead, the Rohingya’s welcome has expired. “It’s a big burden for us,” she says. “The U.N. and other organizations that are supporting [the Rohingya] here can also do the same inside Myanmar.”

The Rohingya crisis was never for Bangladesh to solve alone, of course, and the international community bears collective responsibility. Still, their plight raises fresh doubts regarding American influence in Dhaka. Historical baggage also plays a part. Bangladesh’s liberation struggle was opposed by the U.S., which valued its close ties to the Pakistani junta (famously dubbed “our most allied ally” by Nixon).

“Democracy has a different definition that varies country to country.”
- Sheikh hasina

Hostage to its size and geography, Bangladesh has artfully balanced U.S. ties with links to India, China, and Russia. The latter, in particular, has a significant history of people-to-people relations dating back to the Cold War, with Russian institutions hosting Bangladeshi students and civil society. The risk is that pressing too hard pushes Dhaka away from Washington and closer to Moscow and Beijing. To date, Hasina has both abstained from and supported U.N. resolutions calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. “On some issues, we didn’t vote against Russia; then on some other issues, we vote against Russia,” she says, adding without a hint of irony: “Our position is very clear.”

It’s an approach designed to make Dhaka appear not openly antagonistic to either side. While Hasina has blocked more than 69 sanctioned Russian ships from docking in Bangladesh, in September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov became the first ever top Russian official to visit, and Russian state-owned firm Rosatom is building the nation’s first nuclear plant 90 miles west of Dhaka. On Oct. 6, Bangladesh received the first shipment of Russian uranium for the plant, which is due online next July. Asked where to assign blame for the Ukraine war, Hasina issues a bromide reply: “They should all stop. Putin should stop and the U.S. should stop instigating the war and supplying money. They should give the money to the children.”

Asked about Bangladesh’s draconian new Cyber Security Act, Hasina is again defensive, saying with a wave that “everything you do some people always oppose it.” It’s a habitual reflex to any criticism though no less comforting for it. During our conversation, concerns are immediately dismissed and opportunities for introspection instead diverted into that bottomless well of family trauma. Hasina brings up her murdered father unbidden a dozen times during our two hours together. Domestically, she has propagated a suffocating cult of personality around Mujib; an enormous portrait of the “Father of Nation” looms over our conversation, and his mustachioed visage adorns every public office and website. Inside the departure lounge of Dhaka’s international airport, a floor-to-ceiling plasma screen plays his speeches on loop to the captive audience. “I’m here just to fulfill my father’s dream,” says Hasina.

But that dream wasn’t necessarily a democratic Bangladesh. On Feb. 24, 1975, some six months before his assassination by renegade soldiers, Mujib dissolved all political parties and installed himself as head of a one-party state known as Baksal, ostensibly to see the nation through a state of emergency. Whether democracy would ever be restored is a divisive question, though critics have already dubbed Hasina’s regime “Baksal 2.0.” Even Hasina suggests Bangladesh exists in a gray zone: “Democracy has a different definition that varies country to country.”

It’s hardly a reassuring perspective for one heading toward the ballot box. Hasina knows that a bitter and bruised opposition means failure is not an option. “It is not that easy to overthrow me through a democratic system,” she says. “The only option is just to eliminate me. And I am ready to die for my people.”

—With reporting by Astha Rajvanshi/London

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Dhaka at