Prime Minister Robert Abela has offered congratulations following the re-election of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in controversial elections described as marred by violence and irregularities amid reports of democratic backsliding, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and a deteriorating media freedom environment under her rule.
Abela sent a letter to the prime minister, widely touted in Bangladeshi media, stating, “I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations for your election victory and reappointment as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for a record fifth term.”
The elections on 7 January were highly controversial and saw a turnout of around 28%, but the government insisted it was higher at 40%. During the lead-up to the election, Hasina’s government cracked down on the opposition and silenced government critics.
The US State Department said the election was not free and fair, and the UK’s Foreign Office said they lacked the preconditions of democracy. According to an analysis by The Economist, the polls saw Bangladesh become a “one-party state”.
The opposition had continually called for a caretaker government to be put in place during the run-up to the election, stating that irregularities could mar the process if the ruling party remained in charge.
Even the US warned the country could face visa restrictions if the process ended up being non-democratic. At the same time, the United Nations condemned violence on the streets of the country in the summer of 2023 related to the upcoming election.
During the protests, opposition demonstrators were attacked by police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon, as well as hammers, sticks and iron rods.
A UN spokesperson said hundreds of people who oppose the government had been arrested.
Following the vote, the US State Department said, “The United States shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair, and we regret that not all parties participated.”
The EU expressed regret over the non-participation of all parties and emphasised the importance of democracy and human rights, calling for an investigation into reported election irregularities.
The EU condemned election-related violence, demanded respect for the rule of law, and emphasised the need for political pluralism, dialogue, and media freedom.
Even the UK was unconvinced and said voters were restricted in their choices, and the conditions for a credible and fair vote were not present. Canada expressed disappointment in the electoral process for falling short of democratic values and urged for advancement in human and democratic rights.
Meanwhile, Abela continued in his letter, “I would also like to congratulate you on your incredible record as the longest prime minister in the history of Bangladesh and on becoming the longest-serving female head of government in the world.”
Hasina is the daughter of the first president of Bangladesh and has served for 19 years over what will now be five terms. Most of the elections she has taken part in have been marred by violence and widespread reports of being rigged.
He continued, “Your success reflects the advancements Bangladesh has taken under your leadership and the esteem you are held by so many.”
However, Hasina has been widely credited with plunging the country into authoritarian rule, a far cry from her initial vision of a democratic state.
Furthermore, under her tenure as leader, Bangladesh has experienced significant democratic backsliding, with Human Rights Watch noting enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. The judicial punishment of politicians and journalists has also been described as systematic in the case of those who oppose her views.
In 2021, Reporters Without Borders called attention to the concerning media freedom environment in Bangladesh, a result of Hasina’s media policy since 2014, as well as violence against journalists. They also dubbed her a “predator.”
The prime minister has also been implicated in a number of corruption and bribery scandals, has closed hundreds of online media portals, including those owned by the opposition, and enforced draconian laws on free speech.