Political Violence in Bangladesh Casts Pall over Coming Elections

Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka has been engulfed in political turmoil, with supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) clashing with police. On October 30, authorities arrested a top BNP leader, and the party responded by calling for a three-day nationwide strike. The protests accompanying the strikes quickly turned violent, leaving at least three civilians and one police officer dead.

The BNP has demanded that the ruling Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina resign to allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the country’s affairs leading up to the January 2024 parliamentary elections. Hasina has refused.


Worries about democratic backsliding

The Awami League won a resounding victory — 288 of 300 contested seats — in the December 2018 elections. But voting was marred by allegations of violence and irregularities, and concerns about human rights abuses, such as crackdowns on free speech, torture, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, have grown steadily since Hasina’s current tenure began in 2009.

The U.S. government, signalling its concern, announced in May that it may refuse to issue visas to any Bangladeshi citizen believed to be involved in undermining the country’s democratic processes.


Ambiguous public mood

Recent polling and focus groups suggest public sentiment is mixed; while 70 per cent of respondents to one recent poll approved of Prime Minister Hasina’s performance, 53 per cent said the country is headed in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, overall support for the opposition has risen from 36 per cent in 2019 to 63 per cent as of April 2023, even though BNP rule from 2001-06 was tainted by corruption.

Analysts suggest the current BNP-led protests have gained momentum due to economic frustrations. For years, Bangladesh’s economy grew at an impressive rate; now it faces serious headwinds. The country’s ready-made-garment industry, a major engine of the Bangladeshi economy, has struggled to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, while inflation has dramatically raised food and fuel prices.