Thanks to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s boycott of the January 7 parliamentary elections, Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina will get her fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister with ease. She will be winning virtually unopposed in an election most consider deeply flawed.

Even as her followers shower praise on her, Hasina’s democratic credentials will be in tatters. Her commendable record as an effective, if ruthless, leader who put Bangladesh on the high road to rapid economic growth, will have lost some sheen because of the undemocratic election.

In the fray are official Awami League candidates, unofficial Awami League candidates masquerading as “Independents” and a plethora of candidates from obscure parties. In the absence of the BNP, the Awami League has been “manufacturing an opposition” by putting up so-called “Independents” to give the poll a veneer of competition.

The BNP alleges that voters will be dragged to the polling booths by Awami League goons aided by the police. With international observers watching, the Awami League, aided by the State machinery and the Election Commission, are anxious to get a decent turn out at the booths it is alleged.

Despite outward bravado, anxiety about the support she has was evident in Sheikh Hasina’s recent address to the nation.

"If I've made any mistakes along the way, my request to you will be to look at the matter with the eyes of forgiveness,” she pleaded. “If I can form the government again, I will get a chance to correct the mistakes. Give me an opportunity to serve you by voting for the 'Boat' in the 7 January election," she added.

The Boat is the Awami League’s election symbol.

Although in human rights circles the BNP is presented as the democratic alternative to Hasina, its actions have been equally undemocratic. By repeatedly calling for the boycott of elections and trying to enforce it with general strikes (hartal) on polling day, the democratic process has been repeatedly and wantonly disrupted. These are but attempts to deny people their right to vote.

The threat of violence has made many candidates of the Jatiya Party, an ally of the Awami League, quit the race.

No wonder Awami League leaders are asking why the US, which has officially threatened to impose targeted sanctions on Awami League and government officials for not ensuring free and free elections, haven’t announced any sanctions on the BNP.

However, despite the acts of omission and commission by the BNP and the US, Hasina cannot be absolved of the charge that she has failed to ensure a free and fair election. She could have easily ensured it by agreeing to step down and hand over power to a neutral Caretaker Government. She had abolished the Caretaker government system by a constitutional amendment in 2011.

However, Sheikh Hasina has been in power for three consecutive terms from 2009 to 2023. During this period, her government has kept the nation steadily moving forward on the path of all-round and rapid development.

Describing the overall development of the country in the last 15 years in her TV address, Hasina said that growth was 7.25%; per capita income increased five times; budget size increased 12 times and the Annual Development Program (ADP) increased 13 times; GDP size increased 12 times’; foreign exchange reserves increased 36 times; export earnings increased 5 times; annual remittance increased 6 times; foreign investment increased 5 times; wages of workers increased 9 times’; foreign exchange reserves increased 36 times while export earnings increased five times.

She also mentioned that the poverty rate came down from 41.51% to 18.7%, and drinking water coverage increased from 55% to 98.8%. Sanitary latrines increased from 43.28% to 97.32%, while infant mortality decreased from 84 per thousand to 21 per thousand.

Maternal mortality decreased from 360 per 100,000 to 156 per 100,000. The average human lifespan is now 72.8 years.

Sheikh Hasina said that power generation capacity increased 8 times in the last 15 years while the electricity consumption rate increased from 28% to 100%; the literacy rate increased to 76.8%, while enhancement of technical education increased 22 times.

Grain production increased four times. In 2009, Bangladesh’s GDP was only US$ 102 billion, but in 2023 it had increased to US$ 450 billion.

"We have built Padma Bridge with our own funding. We launched metro rail in Dhaka, constructed elevated expressways, and inaugurated subway construction. We set up the country's first nuclear power plant at Rooppur and constructed South Asia's first underground road 'Bangabandhu Tunnel' in Chittagong,” Hasina said.

She asked voters to make this development permanent and sustainable, to improve the quality of life and make Bangladesh “a hunger-poverty-free developed Smart country.”

Commenting on this, researcher and political commentator Afsan Chowdhury said: “Hasina has created avenues for the high and the low to make money. Bangladesh is a peasant society essentially bothered about livelihood and not ideology or politics. People tolerate any system so long as it meets their basic livelihood needs. And Sheikh Hasina has ensured livelihoods through economic development.”

While victory is assured, Hasina will continue to face problems from the BNP and its ally the Jamaat-e-Islami, though both are weak. The BNP’s leadership is either incapacitated (chief Khaleda Zia is ill), or is in exile (the second in command, Tareq Rahman, is in exile as a fugitive). Prolonged absence from power due to its election boycott policy, has weakened BNP’s cadre base.

But the BNP will not drop its demand that Hasina should quit, hand over the reins of the State to a Caretaker Government and order fresh elections. Since the BNP is organizationally weak, it will have to co-opt its traditional ideological ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose reactionary ideology will oppose social progress of Bangladeshis, especially the women, and sharpen conflicts with neighbouring India.

Being anti-Indian, the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance will continue to stoke anti-Hindu and anti-Indian feelings with the tacit support of the United States (US), which wants to checkmate India’s primacy in the region.

The US wants India and Bangladesh to be part of a militarised Indo-Pacific alliance against China, but New Delhi and Dhaka desire an Indo-Pacific alliance with a strong economic content, an attribute it lacks now.

The Awami League resolutely opposes US meddling in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. One of its district level leaders, Mujibul Haque Chowdhury, has publicly threatened to thrash the US envoy Peter Haas. It is therefore likely that post-election, the US will get tough on Hasina using the BNP as its cat’s paw.

But this will draw India into the conflict as New Delhi is depending on Hasina to deny shelter to anti-Indian Islamic militants and North Eastern tribal separatists. Hasina has refused to give these groups any quarter unlike the BNP which was using them to needle India when it was in power in the 1980s and in the 1990s.

India’s traditional relationship with the Awami League and the family of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is detested by the BNP which is anti-Mujib, anti-India and pro-Pakistan.

Since India needs Hasina, and India has better ties with the US, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to bring Hasina and President Joe Biden together on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi last year. But it did not go beyond pleasantries.

However, Hasina can ill afford to antagonise the US beyond a point. The US (and the EU) are the biggest markets for Bangladesh’s main item of export-Ready Made Garments (RMG). Bangladesh also has a trade surplus with the US.

Hasina has been even-handed between India and China and will continue that policy because it has served her well. She has given high profile development projects to both India and China.

Bangladesh has even-handedly ticked off US and Chinese diplomats when they breached diplomat norms and interfered in the country’s domestic affairs.

Given her successful, if controversial, record in managing domestic contradictions and walking the tightrope in geopolitics, Sheikh Hasina is expected to tackle post-poll challenges with flair and firmness.