The beleaguered opposition in Bangladesh claims it will not be surprising who wins the upcoming general election: Heading into her fourth term in office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is regarded by supporters as an authoritarian but is credited with reviving the economy.
The Election Commission announced on Wednesday that the nation of over 170 million voters will cast ballots on January 7. This news caused celebrations inside Hasina’s party and resignations among the main opposition, whose senior leaders are either in prison or exile for allegations they claim are false.
“Everybody in Bangladesh knows the outcome of this election,” Abdul Moyeen Khan, member of the highest policy-making body of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told Reuters on Thursday.
“What’s the point in becoming a part of that drama? There is no point in going to a meaningless election. Democracy is dead in Bangladesh.”
Hasina has repeatedly rebuffed opposition calls to resign and for a caretaker government to oversee the election, blaming the BNP for deadly street protests in recent days in support of their demand. The BNP on Thursday called for a 48-hour strike from Sunday in protest against the election schedule.
Obaidul Quader, Awami League general secretary and road transport minister, told reporters on Thursday that all parties were welcome to contest the election and there “should be no obstacles for anyone”.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 election but participated in 2018, which party leaders have called a mistake because the voting was marred by allegations of widespread rigging as well as voter and candidate intimidation.
Western governments, including the United States and the European Union, called for an investigation into a range of irregularities in the 2018 vote.
The Awami League, whose alliance won 257 of the 300 directly elected seats in parliament, denied any issues.
A survey by the U.S. non-profit International Republican Institute said in August that for the first time since 2014, a majority of Bangladeshis believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, mainly because of high inflation hovering above 9%. Still, 70% of Bangladeshis approve of Hasina’s performance.
While the BNP has held big protests amid general discontent about rising fuel, utility and other prices, police have responded by arresting many of BNP’s leaders and workers, including Secretary-General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
Police say they have arrested only those responsible for violence.
Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called the arrests an attempt to intimidate ahead of the elections.
“Ongoing mass political arrests, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture of political opponents and critics make the Bangladesh government’s commitments to ‘protecting human rights for all’ meaningless,” Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Thursday.
Hasina has used the country’s massive garments sector, the world’s biggest exporter after China, for broader economic growth, but higher commodity prices after the Russia-Ukraine war forced her to seek a $4.7 billion IMF bailout this year.
The United States, the biggest buyer of Bangladeshi clothes, in May instituted a policy allowing it to restrict visas for Bangladeshis “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process” in the country.