Bangladesh Parliament Election: What is going on? What is the consequence? 

Dr. Md Nurul Amin

Bangladesh is gearing up for a controversial national election on 7 January 2024. This election is an important inflection point for the country’s future, affecting things like democracy, human rights, and economic development. Stakeholders, including the ruling party Awami League, the opposition party BNP, other political parties and other relevant entities such as foreign investors, donor countries, and partner nations, have engaged in discussions revolving around a critical question: Will the election be characterized by attributes like freedom, fairness, participation, and acceptance by all concerned parties?  

The Bangladesh National Party, BNP, held a lawful rally, demanding a fair election in the upcoming parliament election explicitly stating their non-violent intentions, while the Awami regime falsely accused and provoked them.  The Awami regime organized its own rally on October 28, calling it a ‘peace rally,’ but encouraged supporters to come armed with ‘Logi-Boitha,’ reminiscent of past violent actions during the BNP’s 2001–2006 tenure. On 28 October 2006, people were violently beaten to death by Awami League supporters, following Sheikh Hasina’s call for her supporters to bring the oars and boat-hooks (Logi-Boitha). The Awami League’s  general secretary threatened the BNP, referencing the 2013 Hefazat massacre, hinting at similar actions if the alleged redline was crossed on October 28.

In 2011, Awami League made changes to the constitution, removing the provision for a caretaker government. They now claim elections will follow the constitution, but the truth is, the Awami League altered the rules to stay in power indefinitely. Elections under their rule are not expected to be fair. Historically, elections in Bangladesh have never been fair under the ruling party, but they were mostly fair under the caretaker government. Moreover, under the caretaker government, the ruling party has never returned to power. Supporting the demand for a caretaker government from BNP and other parties could lead to a situation where the Awami League loses power, as elections under caretaker governments offered opportunities for opposition parties. If the BNP and other parties’ request for a caretaker government is accepted, it could mean the Awami League loses power, and they really don’t want that. Because of this fear, the Awami League is cracking down on opposition rallies using tactics like shooting by police, using tear gas, and even blaming the opposition for bus fires. Additionally, members of the ruling Awami League are joining forces with the police to suppress the opposition. In some instances, they deliberately set buses on fire and blame the opposition, creating a false narrative that the opposition is causing chaos. The ruling party orchestrates this drama to frame the opposition, with the police even planning staged confrontations to make it look like crossfire incidents. 

To stop the rally in Dhaka on October 28, 2023, the police checked all incoming buses for BNP supporters. They even inspected personal belongings like bags, mobile phones, and IDs to identify supporters. A year earlier, during another BNP rally, both the police and Awami League supporters checked people’s mobile phones to know their political views, sometimes resorting to assault. This suggests that not supporting the ruling party is treated as illegal. In recent large rallies, the police checked all residential hotels in Dhaka for BNP supporters and searched civilian houses. After October 28, the police consistently arrested BNP leaders and supporters, with many facing false criminal charges. The prison population in Bangladesh, including those with false charges against opposition supporters, has nearly doubled. This situation poses a serious threat to the privacy and independence of ordinary citizens in Bangladesh, with seemingly no one to help them.

During Hasina’s regime, several mega projects have been initiated, touted by her party supporters as signs of extensive development. Examples include the Padma Bridge, Rooppur Nuclear Power, Dhaka Metro Rail, Karnaphuli River Tunnels, etc. However, concerns arise about the final project cost, utility, and benefits, as well as the necessity and foreign loans for these mega projects. To know the insights into the foundational aspects of Bangladesh’s development, the following two books are recommended (Aprotiroddho Unnoyoner Abhaboniyo Kothamala by Faiz Ahmad Taiyeb and Unnoyon Bivrom  by Zia Hasan). The Padma Bridge’s final cost escalated to nearly three times the initial budget, raising allegations of corruption. Critics argue that mega projects often translate to mega corruption. Questions also arise about the necessity of projects like the Rooppur Power Plant, considering the country’s high population density and associated risks. Additionally, projects like the Bangabandhu-1 satellite, created by Thales Alenia Space, was expected to cost 248 million US dollars in 2015, financed through a $188.7 million loan from HSBC Holdings plc. It was  launched in 2018,  face criticism for being largely unused (Bangabandhu Satellite’s two-thirds capacity remains unutilised: The Business Standard, 11 June 2021;Bangabandhu Satellite earnings miles away from projection, The New Age, 22 May 2021 ), leading to a waste of foreign currency. Despite economic challenges and low purchasing power for citizens,Bangladesh has agreed to work with a Russian company on its second satellite, the Bangabandhu Satellite-2, with a budget of $435 million, to launch a second satellite using Russian loans, further contributing to the country’s foreign debt (Questions about second satellite, The Business Standard, 17 February 2022). Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has approved an agreement to provide loans for Bangladesh’s infrastructure development and has also signed a letter of intent to supply the South Asian country with an earth observation satellite system (France and Bangladesh sign deal to provide loans, satellite technology, Euronewe, 11 September 2023).  Critics argue that the government’s development narrative is more cosmetic than substantive, relying on increasing foreign debt while facing critically low forex reserves.  The foreign exchange reserve dropped to $19 billion, and the Bangladesh Bank governor, speaking at the Economic Reporters’ Forum, labeled the current economic crisis as the worst in his 36-year career (EC’s wasted dialogue, The New Age, 10 November 2023).

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since 2009, Bangladesh’s Awami League-led government has faced serious human rights issues. Opposition suppression involves tactics like extra-judicial killings labeled as gunfights or crossfires, forceful disappearances, abduction of opposition leaders, and control over media outlets. Journalists and cartoonists faced arrests, torture, and even death for criticizing Hasina’s power. Examples include the arrest of human rights defender Shahnewaz Chowdhury and journalist Rozina Islam.In 2021, human rights defender Shahnewaz Chowdhury got arrested for sharing his opinion on Facebook, charged with disrupting law and order. That same year, journalist Rozina Islam was arrested, accused of stealing confidential documents. She was actually trying to gather information about the China-Bangladesh COVID-19 vaccine deal, as the government hadn’t shared details. In October 2021, Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion arrested Nusrat Shahrin Raka under the Digital Security Act and Narcotics Control Act. Her brother, journalist Kanak Sarwar, had been exiled for reporting on the son of opposition leader Khaleda Zia. Living overseas, he criticizes the Bangladesh government on his YouTube channel. He believes his sister was targeted and arrested as retaliation for his criticisms. Raka also filed a complaint about a fake Facebook account using her information.

With the reference of local human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra, Amnesty International Bangladesh 2021 report said that at least 157 people were killed and 10,833 injured in 932 incidents of political violence and clashes with the police and between supporters of ruling and opposition political parties during 2021. Report also said that on 25 March, at least 14 people, including a journalist, were injured at a demonstration which opposed the visit of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. A political cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishor was arrested and detained along with writer Mushtaq Ahmed under the Digital Security Act, for posting satirical cartoons and comments on Facebook, critiquing the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mushtaq Ahmed died after 10 months in prison without trial due to ill-torture by authority. As well Kishore lost his hearing ability in his right ear due to the massive torture. A number of journalists, scholars are residing outside of the country because of fearness of being a victim of torture and killing. The notable example is that photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested due to his support for the student demand movement. Recently, human rights activist Adilur Rahman was denied bail and imprisoned (See report <> ). To stifle criticism of Hasina’s Dynasty, several journalists, including writer Pinaki Bhattracharya and newspaper (Amar Desh) Editor-in-Chief Mahmudur Rahman, were forced into exile from Bangladesh. 

To ensure the stability of Bangladesh, the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union express concerns, urging the ruling Awami League government to halt the oppression of opposition and create an atmosphere conducive to free, fair, and participatory elections. Despite these calls, the Awami League accuses them of interference. US Ambassador Peter D Haas and the United States have earned the support of many Bangladeshis by championing democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections, aligning with the core principles of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.  Thus, Ambassador Haas and US authorities consistently emphasize that the United States has no intention to intervene in the Bangladesh election. Still, they advocate for a free, fair, and inclusive election accepted by all stakeholders. It’s not just the BNP; other major political parties join hands with the BNP, urging the government to step down and establish a caretaker interim government for a genuinely fair election. The majority of Bangladeshis share the desire for free and fair elections, seen as feasible only under a caretaker government. International officials, including the US, UN, and EU, echo this sentiment to ensure stability in Bangladesh. It’s worth mentioning that the United States is one of the largest donors and investors in Bangladesh. Consequently, they seek a stable and peaceful environment in the country to enhance their bilateral relations.

On the flip side, India’s stance raises questions and is at times unclear. A recent statement by an Indian diplomat indicated their desire to witness democracy in Bangladesh without interference, expressing displeasure at American involvement in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. Despite this, India has a historical tendency to support the Awami League in maintaining power. The Indian government favors the Awami League for its economic benefits, fostering good neighborly relations, and securing investments in Bangladesh. Additionally, India relies on Bangladesh’s support for stability in its own country, particularly in the northeastern states. While India emphasizes the importance of the Awami League for Bangladeshi democracy, secularism, and curbing religious violence, the situation remains unclear given Bangladesh’s longstanding history of secularism and harmonious coexistence among Muslims and minority Hindus and others. India consistently warns about the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh if Hasina’s regime fails. This is a clear sign of interference with the democratic right to vote for the people of Bangladesh. Sometimes, Hindu temples are attacked, and it’s discovered that in most cases, Awami League leaders are responsible. Govinda Pramanik, the leader of Hindu Mohajot, has consistently confessed to Awami League for various attacks on Hindus and their temples.

Since the United States advocates for a free, fair, and participatory election in Bangladesh, there’s a clear implication that the Awami League might not succeed and return to power. Consequently, supporters of the Awami League are displeased with the diplomatic involvement of Peter D Haas in Bangladesh. A grassroots leader of the Awami League went so far as to threaten to physically harm US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter D Haas and force him into exile from Bangladesh. Additionally, the General Secretary of the Chhatra League (the student wing of the Awami League) remarked that they have experience dealing (kill and eat) with “Has” (Bengali word means ducks) and Raj Has (Bengali Word means swans), suggesting a readiness to handle (possibly harm) Peter D Haas as well. Engaging in such hate speech poses a risk to the diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and the United States. It’s important to recognize that the U.S. has already issued sanctions against those who obstruct the free and fair participatory elections in Bangladesh. If diplomatic relations deteriorate further, there’s a potential threat of economic sanctions being imposed on Bangladesh, leading to disastrous consequences. Considering that the United States is a key buyer of clothing from Bangladesh, making it one of the major importers for both Bangladesh and the global apparel market. Bangladesh holds the position of being the third-largest source of apparel for the United States. It is worth mentioning that  Bangladesh earns around 82% of foreign currency through garment exports worldwide, so  economic sanctions could severely impact the nation’s economy.  Moreover, Bangladesh’s foreign reserves have been diminishing due to higher costs, shortages of essential goods, and increased imports of major commodities like petroleum, vegetable oils, and food. Therefore, challenging the U.S. and risking its support may lead to a serious risk of famine in Bangladesh.

Despite Chinese diplomats stating their non-involvement in Bangladesh’s politics as an internal affair, they express concerns about America’s engagement in Bangladesh politics. While diplomatic language often emphasizes non-interference, criticizing another country’s involvement is a form of interference in internal politics. The U.S. has clearly expressed its desire for free, fair, and participatory elections, aiming to support stable democracy in Bangladesh. Choosing to dispute the U.S. stance implies backing a non-democratic or authoritarian government with unfair or manipulated elections. China has become a significant partner for Bangladesh, providing foreign investment, loans, and contributing to various megaprojects. However, this partnership raises concerns among citizens, fearing Bangladesh might fall into a Chinese debt trap, similar to cases observed in Laos or Sri Lanka. With Bangladesh already facing foreign reserve shortages, China’s loan offers to support reserves contribute to worries about increasing dependence and potential debt-related challenges, akin to experiences in certain African nations.

Relying too much on China can lead to a debt trap, as observed in some countries. An example is the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte initially aligned with China, signaling a separation from the U.S. and a focus on economic ties with Beijing (Reuters, OCTOBER 20, 2016). However, concerns arose about the Philippines falling into a Chinese debt trap. Duterte’s presidency, marked by an aggressive war on crime, garnered international attention for its controversial policies and strained relations with the U.S. As Duterte’s term concludes, the Philippines faces challenges to its democratic foundations, including concerns about human rights violations and erosion of democratic values. Notably, the new president elected in 2022 distanced the country from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, avoiding the debt trap associated with the project. 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) faces criticism from the Western world, particularly the United States, which fears that China’s ascent may undermine its values and interests. Concerns about transparency and onerous lending terms persist, with the ‘debt trap diplomacy’ narrative prevailing despite research debunking it. Sovereign debt challenges in the developing world revolve around equitable solutions for unsustainable debt owed to various creditors. Multilateral creditors account for 53% of Bangladesh’s external public debt, with only 7% attributed to China. In the case of Sri Lanka, 35% is owed to international bondholders, whereas Laos owes 49% to China exclusively.  Laos has officially acknowledged its difficulty in repaying loans from China, and the country is at a significant risk of defaulting on its substantial debt. About 88% of Laos’ debt, totaling $14.5 billion, is owed to China, with major projects like the China-Laos railway contributing to the burden (VOA,July 01, 2022) . Experts anticipate continued default risk, emphasizing the country’s precarious financial situation. Laos, heavily indebted due to borrowing from President Xi Jinping’s administration for infrastructure projects, faces an economic crisis with public debt exceeding 100% of GDP. Coupled with a currency crisis and high inflation, the country is on the verge of collapse. Analysts caution that without a definitive debt reduction agreement with China, Laos’ financial challenges may persist, questioning whether Beijing will agree to substantial concessions (CNBC,NOV 8 2023). 

However, Bangladesh would be facing a more or less similar debt crisis “China debt trap” due to increasing  Chinese loans. Bangladesh’s Finance Minister Mustafa Kamal has issued a warning to developing countries, advising caution regarding Chinese loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (The Economic Times, 10 August 2022). He stressed the need for careful consideration, highlighting Beijing’s poor lending decisions that risk pushing nations into debt distress. Kamal urged China to adopt a more rigorous evaluation process for loans to prevent adding strains on indebted emerging markets. Emphasizing a selective approach, he stated Bangladesh would only pursue projects deemed essential and economically viable. The Finance Minister’s remarks come amid global concerns over the economic challenges faced by countries involved in Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, as witnessed in Sri Lanka. 

Bangladesh grapples with mounting financial strain as it faces imminent repayments for Chinese and Russian infrastructure projects, placing increased pressure on foreign exchange reserves. The repayment schedule for China-funded megaprojects, including the Karnaphuli river tunnel and Padma bridge rail link, begins in November and December, respectively, placing additional pressure on foreign reserves. While Bangladesh is generally viewed as having more economic flexibility compared to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, concerns are mounting that the nation is entering a critical period for preserving its financial stability. The financial landscape is complicated by the fact that the country is indebted to China, with a total debt of approximately $17.5 billion, a figure confirmed by the Economic Relations Division (ERD) (Nikkei, Asia, 18 August, 2023. According to the report “The Finance Ministry projects a continuous increase in Bangladesh’s debt burden, estimating that external debt may surge to $85.24 billion in fiscal 2024-25 from $76.45 billion in fiscal 2023-24”. The country’s financial challenges have wider implications, as the decline in foreign exchange reserves is contributing to a severe economic crisis. The weakened currency and rising prices are taking a toll on the purchasing power of the population, especially for low to middle-income individuals who are struggling to afford their daily necessities. The surge in prices is not solely attributed to natural market forces; the government’s explanation of syndicate control is met with skepticism. Critics argue that the reluctance to dismantle these alleged syndicates might be due to their support for the ruling Awami League and their significant financial contributions to the political party. Supply shortages have also played a role in the escalating prices of essential commodities, exemplified by items such as potatoes and eggs. The government’s temporary solution of importing these products from India resulted in a brief reduction in prices, revealing a domestic supply shortage.Amid these economic challenges, Bangladesh is obliged to meet its loan repayment obligations. This precarious economic condition has raised concerns among economists, who warn that the country may be on the brink of another food crisis reminiscent of the challenging times faced in 1974. The combination of rising debt, falling reserves, and economic fragility underscores the urgency for Bangladesh’s need for careful economic navigation to avert a deeper crisis. 

In terms of geopolitics, the United States aims to promote democracy in Bangladesh, which challenges Chinese influence in the South Asian Indo-Pacific region, including Bangladesh. If the U.S. fails in this diplomatic effort, it may result in an authoritarian or non-democratic government in Bangladesh aligning with China and Russia, both of which lack democratic governance. This outcome would contribute to the rise of Chinese supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, and the power of Russia would also strengthen, posing a threat to democracy. Additionally, India faces a dilemma: it desires to maintain a good relationship with the Awami League for political stability in its northeastern states and economic benefits from Bangladesh, such as transit, transshipment, and port usage to boost the Indian economy. However, India is wary of increased Chinese influence in Bangladesh, particularly concerning its strategic vulnerability at the Chicken Neck. Thus, India is caught between supporting America for free and fair elections in Bangladesh or not endorsing America’s efforts to establish its preferred regimes in the country. 

Furthermore, Prime Minister Hasina’s strategic shift from alignment with the United States towards a China-Russian alliance raises concerns about her intentions regarding upcoming elections. There is speculation that she aims to orchestrate a so-called election to solidify authoritarian power or establish a democracy modeled after the Chinese-Russian style. This shift would potentially deepen dependence on China and Russia, leading to increased borrowing to showcase superficial development while pushing the nation further into the debt abyss of these countries. As Bangladesh stands at this crossroads, it becomes imperative for its citizens to make a pivotal decision. They must weigh the risks of falling into a Chinese debt trap against the potential for extricating themselves, similar to the Philippines. The key point in demanding a genuinely free and fair election, which serves as the initial step toward a debt-free future. The upcoming parliamentary election holds significant importance for numerous reasons, emphasizing the urgency for Bangladeshi citizens to voice their aspirations for the nation’s direction.

Dr Md Nurul Amin, Technical Officer, University of Tasmania