Sheikh Hasina: Bangladesh’s iron lady who turned elections into a solo act

By Azad Majumder

Dhaka, Jan 4 (EFE).- Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister who has clinched the most mandates in Bangladesh’s electoral history, seeks to extend her iron fist rule for the fourth consecutive term in the upcoming general elections over the weekend as the lone viable candidate contending for the top position.

In an election overshadowed by an opposition boycott led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the critical question revolves around the potential for dialogue post-vote, amid concerns about violence and state repression.

Hasina, 76, secured her first general election victory in 1996, rising to the political forefront as the heir to her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a central figure in Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971.

After Rahman’s assassination in 1975, Hasina, while in exile in New Delhi, began building her network of followers.

Upon her return to Bangladesh in 1981, she assumed the presidency of the Awami League, a position she still holds.

With a cumulative 15 years in power and her first term between 1996 and 2001, supporters praise her as a “visionary leader” contributing to Bangladesh’s economic success, with a poverty rate dropping from 11.8 percent in 2010 to 5 percent in 2022, according to the World Bank.

Her decision to shelter over a million Rohingya, including 774,000 who fled in 2017 from a Myanmar Army offensive, earned international approval.

“She is carrying the vision of Bangabandhu (Mujib) and fulfilling his dream of a happy and prosperous Bangladesh,” said AAMS Arefin Siddique, a former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University.

“She is working for the economic and political emancipation of the people of Bangladesh.”

However, critics argue that despite economic growth, Bangladesh has witnessed human rights abuses under Hasina’s government.

“Sheikh Hasina has always wished to do well for Bangladesh, a country that her father led to independence, but has shown an unfortunate streak towards power grabbing and authoritarianism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

When she came to power in 2009, the country had three cases of forced disappearances, according to HRW.

For the following elections in 2014, boycotted by the opposition, there were 130, and in 2018, a somewhat smaller number, 98.

“Instead of being confident that her governance would be appreciated enough to assure her return to office in free and fair elections, she has repeatedly abused her power to deny citizens their right to choose their leaders,” Ganguly told EFE.

The consequences of the authoritarian tendencies are evident in the upcoming elections, with the opposition actively boycotting the vote.

The BNP has decried an unprecedented campaign of arrests since organizing a massive demonstration on Oct. 28.

Over 24,000 BNP leaders and activists have been arrested, and the party’s leadership practically dismantled.

BNP leader Khaleda Zia, banned from politics since her conditional release in March 2020, is grappling with fragile health.

Her son and interim president, Tarique Rahman, has been in exile in London since 2008 after multiple convictions.

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