How Sheikh Hasina's life and politics has shaped Bangladesh

Ahead of the vote, Hasina has flaunted some of her signature achievements, such as Dhaka’s metro and the country’s longest bridge, which she inaugurated in 2021. She has cast herself as the leader of an impoverished nation aspiring to become an upper-middle-income country by 2031

FP Staff January 03, 2024 13:51:36 IST
How Sheikh Hasina's life and politics has shaped Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also won international praise when she gave shelter to Rohingya Muslims fleeing prosecution in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. Some 1.1 million Rohingya live in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh today. File Photo.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will face a general election on Sunday, a vote she is all but certain to win. Critics say it could further tighten her grip on power after a 15-year-rule.

Hasina’s main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is boycotting the polls, claiming her government cannot ensure a fair vote, and making it increasingly likely the 76-year-old premier will secure her fourth consecutive and fifth overall term in office.

Her supporters say Hasina, who is the longest-serving leader in the history of Bangladesh, and her Awami League have given them a country with a growing industry and humming development projects. The stability has staved off military coups that have shaken the young, predominantly Muslim nation strategically located between India and Myanmar.

However, Hasina’s political life, like her country, began with violence. On August 15, 1975, a group of military officers behind a coup assassinated her father, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, the first leader of independent Bangladesh.

Some say the brutal act, which also killed nearly her entire family, pushed her to consolidate unprecedented power and motivated her throughout her career in politics.

“Hasina has one very powerful quality as a politician — and that is to weaponize trauma,” said Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer specializing in South Asian strategic affairs at SOAS University of London.

A person who worked closely with Hasina says her ambition was to create the country envisioned by her father, who led the new nation after its forces, aided by India, defeated Pakistan in 1971.

“She felt her father’s work was cut short, and that only she could complete it,” they told news agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

After the assassination, Hasina lived for years in exile in India, then made her way back to Bangladesh and took over the Awami League. But the country’s military rulers had her in and out of house detention throughout the 1980s until, after general elections in 1996, she became prime minister for the first time.

What followed was a decades long power struggle between Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, now ailing and under house arrest.

The two women alternated running the country for years in a bitter rivalry that polarized Bangladesh. Hasina has often accused the BNP of courting hardline extremists that her party, which calls itself moderate and secular, had worked to stamp out. Zia’s BNP claims the Awami League is using oppressive tactics to stay in power.

Analysts say that while they project different ideologies, both parties are tainted by a history of electoral violence and politics of retribution.

When Hasina was reelected in 2008, she fixed her sights on the economy and built infrastructure previously unseen in Bangladesh — power lines that reached remote villages, highways, rail lines and ports, and a garment industry that became one of the world’s most competitive.

“I thought my family would never have power at home,” said Abdul Halim, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka. “Now my entire village has electricity.”

Ahead of the vote, Hasina has flaunted some of her signature achievements, such as Dhaka’s metro and the country’s longest bridge, which she inaugurated in 2021. She has cast herself as the leader of an impoverished nation aspiring to become an upper-middle-income country by 2031.

“Bangladesh will never look back again,” Hasina said in 2023. “It will continue marching to be a smart, developed and prosperous country.”

But the recent global economic slowdown has not spared Bangladesh, exposing cracks in its economy that have triggered labuor unrest and dissatisfaction.

Mohammed Shohid, a driver in Dhaka, said the government has failed to stop price hikes of essential goods — beans and tomatoes have nearly doubled in price over the last two years. “We cannot afford them anymore,” he said.

Hasina’s critics say her government has used harsh tools to muzzle dissent, shrink press freedoms and curtail civil society. Rights groups cite forced disappearances of critics. The government rejects the accusations.

In the 2018 election, an AL-led alliance won 96% of the parliament seats amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging, which authorities denied. In 2014, all major opposition parties boycotted the vote. The BNP says about 20,000 of its members have been arrested in recent months on trumped-up charges ahead of Sunday’s vote.

“There’s a history of an autocratic slide in Hasina’s decision-making,” said Paliwal, the university lecturer. “The current elections may be a final stamp on a full-blown one-party state.”

Voters like Dhaka resident Tamanna Rahman, 46, say the prime minister has no real challengers. “We do not have any option but to elect Hasina again.”

On the international scene, Hasina has cultivated ties with powerful countries and successfully balanced between rivals. She staunchly supports both India and China, even as the two Asian giants are locked in a standoff over a disputed border region. In turn, Beijing and New Delhi have bankrolled a slew of Bangladesh’s infrastructure projects.

She has nurtured historic ties with Russia, even as it presses on fighting in Ukraine while also increasingly courting Western leaders.

“Say what you will about Hasina, but she has managed the great power competition very effectively,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

Hasina also won international praise when she gave shelter to Rohingya Muslims fleeing prosecution in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. Some 1.1 million Rohingya live in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh today, many embarking on deadly sea voyages for a chance of a better life elsewhere.

The United States — the biggest export market for Bangladeshi garments — announced visa restrictions in May on anyone disrupting Bangladesh’s electoral process. The announcement came after Washington expressed concerns over human rights violations and press freedoms in the country.

Some of the pressure she has been under became evident during a recent news conference.

“If you talk too much, I will shut down everything,” she snapped, her salt-and-pepper hair covered by a sari, her grey eyes fixed on the reporters.

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