On Dec. 30, 2018, Bangladesh held its 11th national election since becoming independent in 1971. The questionable results ended in a sweeping victory for the ruling Awami League party of Sheikh Hasina. The party’s coalition secured 288 out of a possible 300 seats in Parliament, ostensibly winning more than 90 percent of the popular vote. The coalition of the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, won a mere seven seats. The results ensured a third term in office for the Awami League. However, almost immediately after the results were announced, a host of foreign and domestic analysts pointed out that the election was far from free or fair. Their misgivings were warranted. At least 17 people were killed in election-related violence, many others were injured, and there were widespread allegations of voter intimidation.
The Awami League has, of course, dismissed the charges of electoral malfeasance and instead suggested that the opposition is solely to blame for its anemic performance. Hasina’s government argued that it received such a sweeping mandate because it had delivered steady economic growth during its two terms in office. Furthermore, party stalwarts accused the opposition of precipitating electoral violence.
The rollback of democracy in Bangladesh matters. Although it is dwarfed by neighboring India, Bangladesh is the eighth-largest country in the world in terms of population. It is also a predominantly Islamic country and the home of close to 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Founded as a secular republic in 1971, it has become increasingly religious in large measure thanks to the pandering on the part of both military and civilian regimes to religious zealots in efforts to court segments of the population.
Despite a formal Supreme Court judgment in 2010 that restored secularism as one of the key tenets of the country’s constitution, Islam was nevertheless kept as the only official state religion. (This restoration was needed because under the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Mohammed Ershad, the secular features of Bangladesh’s Constitution had been significantly eroded.)