Apart from the noticeable socio-economic growth track, what is favourable for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s comeback is her government’s “zero-tolerance” policy to counter violent extremism.
She has also positioned the Awami League as a secular nationalist party, emphasising on its prosecution and execution of hardline Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who were found guilty of war crimes during the Liberation war in 1971.
The government’s main focus had been on a “quick-fix” strategy to curb terrorism, they say, until the attack on the popular Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s upmarket Gulshan neighbourhood on July 1, 2016, which led to the massacre of more than 20 hostages, most of them foreigners. It is termed as one of the deadliest attacks in Bangladesh’s history. This, after a series of killings of secular bloggers, writers, publishers, cultural activists and politicians since 2013, that led many to believe that Bangladesh was losing its war against terror, says Dr Smruti S. Pattanaik, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), who has been following studying Bangladesh for more than two decades.
Experts say Bangladesh has been susceptible to religious extremism, even though terrorist attacks appear to have declined in the past two years. The only other major incidents include the armed attack during Eid prayers at the Sholokia Mosque that killed three people on July 8, 2016, and three botched-up suicide bomb attacks in March 2017. Hasina, realising the threat to herself and her government, is committed to the fight against terrorism and radicalisation and has managed to get wider public support from across the political spectrum and civil society, adds Pattanaik.
According to a US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, 2017, since Holey Artisan Bakery attack, at least 79 suspected radicals have been killed and more than 150 others arrested in an aggressive anti-militancy crackdown. To support counter-terrorism, the Bangladesh government also enacted the country’s first anti-terrorism law in 2009, which was amended in 2013. Moreover, to cripple terror at the heel, the government also formulated the Money Laundering Prevention Act, 2012.
“Bangladesh, a member of the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, and with the central bank and Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit, is leading the government’s efforts to counter the financing of terrorism,” the report says.
“The carefully targeted arrests have visibly weakened the most threatening organisations in the country and reduced the danger of terrorist attacks. The government also imposed bans on six groups, including home-grown terror groups like Harkat-ul-Jihad Bangladesh, Ansar-ul-Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh,” explains Dr Pattanaik.
Bangladesh’s per capita income growth has risen to 6.2%, according to figures released by the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects (GEP), 2018. This figure is higher than the 5.4% average compared to developing countries, based on the same report. Bangladesh – the eighth most populous country in the world – has as many 165 million citizens, and is growing rapidly. Its economic growth reached 7.2% last year and has exceeded 6% for two straight decades, lifting 50 million people out of extreme poverty in the process, according to a report by the Centre for Research and Information, Bangladesh.
Hasina’s strong rule brought political stability to Bangladesh, enabling it to make noticeable socio-economic progress over the past 10 years, says Dr Arifin, former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University, adding – “Hasina has managed to overcome political and fundamentalist challenges that were also faced by her predecessor Khaleda Zia, with a different outlook and vision. Bangladesh is listed to become a middle-income country by 2024, provided that we maintain the current socio-economic development trajectory.”
Bangladesh is the second largest exporters of garments in the world, running into billions of dollars annually, based on data from the International Trade Statistics of the World Bank, 2014. Hasina is also betting big on a self-financed 20 km-long $3.9 billion railroad bridge project on the mighty Padma River, expected to be a major turnaround for South Asia’s youngest nation. The small nation, once written off as a “basket case” by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, is on the verge of completing its biggest-ever infrastructure project all alone, says Dr Shafiul Alam from Dhaka University. “It will be a game-changer for Bangladesh’s economy, a great boost to its national pride and a major poll plank for Prime Minister Hasina,” he says.
Hasina’s fate, however, hinges in the hands of its young voters – about 23.5 million of the 104 million-strong electorate, aged between 18 and 30, according to latest figures released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). Former Bangladesh Election Commissioner Brigadier General (retd) Dr M. Sakhawat Hussain says: “Though it is too early to say which side the first-time voters and other young voters are going to tilt, this segment, which has been ignored by political groups, will be the deciding factor as even a few hundred votes may work in the winner’s favour.” Bangladeshi youngsters want a stable future and they will carefully consider promises of political parties before voting, adds Alam.
A united, yet weak opposition
Some analysts say that the ruling party is facing a relatively united opposition for the first time in more than 10 years. The contest has been thrown open, they say, with the formation of an opposition alliance – the Jatiya Oikya Front – which includes the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and other smaller opposition parties. It is being led by former president Badruddoza Chowdhury and former Awami League foreign and law minister Kamal Hossain, both of whom are contesting polls this year.
Bangladesh watchers, however, say if infrastructure development, economic growth and the “zero-tolerance” policy adopted by the Hasina government to counter violent extremism and prevent the country from becoming a terrorist “safe haven”, are taken as yardstick, then the Bangladeshi voters have no better option than to vote the Awami League back to power. The opposition’s unity will polarise the political narrative into Awami League versus the rest, but it has no consensus on a candidate for prime minister or a vision to match Hasina’s, says Dr Arifin – “Bangladesh’s socio-economic progress is robust, its entrepreneurial and grassroots economy is among the fastest growing in Asia, in Hasina’s 10-year tenure, which will work in her favour.”
The Muslim-dominated country’s political narrative revolves around two major parties, the Awami League and BNP, both controlled by two powerful women and bitter rivals – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – who between each other, have alternately ruled South Asia’s youngest country for decades. However, Khaleda Zia’s indictment on October 29 raised her prison sentence from three to 10 years. Facing 37 cases, including 2004’s grenade attack on Hasina, Zia has been barred from contesting polls, while her son and political heir, Tarique Rahman, is now a fugitive from justice, living in exile in London after a life sentence – this predicament has left the BNP leaderless, and many believe that it may limit their electoral prospects.