Ever since Bangladesh became an independent state in 1971, its political life has suffered several types of seemingly endemic conflict, some of it associated with periodic outbursts of violence or prolonged and relatively low-key armed confrontations.

Currently, Bangladesh has an ‘abnormal crisis’ – political violence and widespread harassment of opponents that has shaken its democratic foundations.

Sitting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sealed a third straight term in office after taking 288 of the 300 seats contested in Sunday’s poll. But the result was labeled “farcical” by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies because of rampant arrests and killing of rivals, plus alleged vote rigging.

The government has taken steps to control the situation, arresting opposition leaders allegedly incriminated in the violence, which saw a new phase of dispute and confrontation between the government and opposition party, and claimed at least 18 lives.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged people to vote for her Awami League party to continue the country’s development and prosperity.

Over the last five years Bangladesh has made tangible progress in comparison with its neighbors such as Pakistan, India and other South Asian countries.

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Loss of democratic rights?

Members of opposition parties scoff at claims that the country has enjoyed significant development, but a key question now being asked is whether people have lost their democratic rights and basic political freedom.

As Kamal Hossain, leader of the Jatiya Oikya Front opposition alliance, said to the Nikkei Asian Review: “We have seen strong growth, but it is a mistake to credit the government… Economic success is the result of many factors, including above all, the efforts of our people. I believe that people want change, and if the election is minimally free and fair the opposition could win. My decision to set up a coalition was to provide people with an option to bring about change through an election.”

While the Sheikh Hasina government has presided over remarkable economic growth and infrastructural development, and should enjoy broad support for that, the current situation is less rosy.

Public protests and violent attacks on opponents, particularly members of ‘United Front (Oikkya Front)’ such as the BNP and Bangladesh Jamat-e Islami (BJI), surged ahead of the national election held on December 30 – last Sunday. And that has put a different perspective on the outcome.

A report by Odhikar, a human rights organization, revealed that 77 people were killed in political violence in 2017. But the number ended even higher in 2018, with 79 people killed and 3,826 people injured in political attacks.

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Source: 2017 report by Odhikar human rights organization.

Hasina’s opponents believed that people were unhappy and tired with her government and had been oppressed over the past decade. They said people wanted change and a free and fair election to prevent the Awami League from returning to power.

National and international human rights groups say the ruling party utilized its political apparatus and state law-enforcement agencies to destroy opposition parties through arbitrary arrests and physical attacks.

Odhikar, a Bangladesh-based rights organization, said that as many as 449 people were killed in “crossfires” – a local term for extrajudicial killings – in 2018.

Meanwhile, media outlets were shackled via a new digital security law.

Bangladesh endured violent polls in 2014, when opposition parties such as the BNP and BJI boycotted the election, and hundreds were killed this time around after the government refused to appoint an interim caretaker administration.

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Source: Odhikar data released on 9 December 2018, three weeks before the election.

Hasina’s crackdown

Hasina cracked down on her main rival, Khaleda Zia, the former PM and opposition leader. Zia was put under house arrest in 2013 and in February 2018 was sentenced to five years in jail for misusing funds donated to a charitable children’s trust.

All up, the 72-year-old Kia, who was the prime minister from 1991 to 1996 and 2001 to 2006, faced 34 charges. Her son, Tarique Rahman, serves as the BNP’s acting chairman, from exile in London. He was also sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for his involvement in a 2004 grenade attack on an Awami League rally.

Meanwhile, the main Islamist political party, BJI, lost their five top leaders including the chief of their party, Motiur Rahman Nizami. The current government hanged them after a controversial “war crimes tribunal”, which critics said happened only for political reasons.

The arrest of opposition members and supporters soared in the run-up to the election. In December, the Election Commission ruled that nearly all 300 of the BNP candidates were ineligible to stand in the election because of charges filed against them.

Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, told a Bangladeshi television talk show that in some instances, “more than 100 cases [were filed] against a single candidate and most of the cases are false.”

However, Hasina has achieved a great deal while in power. Over the past decade, the economy has grown on average 6.3% a year under her rule. And in recent years, the rate of growth has matched or exceeded that of both India and Pakistan.

The country has attracted $42 billion in Chinese investment. Childhood mortality rates have been slashed, from 43 deaths per 1,000 live births to 26, while fertility rates have fallen and school attendance has risen by more than 10%.

Not so long ago, Hasina won praise from the international community for accommodating 700,000 Rohingya refugees that fled violent persecution in western Myanmar.

But sadly, her administration’s authoritarian stance during the run-up to the election forced people to take a fresh position on her government.

According to Human Rights Watch, almost 300 extrajudicial killings occurred in the country since May. And in September 2018, the youth and student wing of the Awami League government plus members of Chhatra League, a students’ political organization, used violence to crack down on students protesting for safer roads in Dhaka.

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In sum, Bangladesh has enjoyed better living standards under Hasina’s time in office, while also enduring a rise in authoritarianism and an erosion of democratic governance.