News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - South Asia “Personocracy”, Bangladeshi-Style

Recent elections confirmed a disturbing trend towards autocratic rule in the South Asian republic


A large poster of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on a stage near Dhaka University ahead of the general election, 4 December 2023.
A large poster of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on a stage near Dhaka University ahead of the general election, 4 December 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Bangladesh recently conducted its twelfth general elections since the founding of the state in 1971. The incumbent political party, the Awami League (AL), won 223 out of 300 seats, making its leader, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s longest-serving prime minister and the longest-serving female head of state in the world.

Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan is a professor at the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University, Bangladesh.

Nadja Dorschner directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s South Asia Office in New Delhi.

Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the “Father of the Nation” who led Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. She took on a leading position in the party after his assassination in 1975, and has ruled the country since 2008.

According to its founding principles, the Awami League is democratic, secular, and nationalist, but one could be forgiven for doubting whether the party currently adheres to these principles. Hasina’s biggest political opponent, Khaleda Zia, head of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is under house arrest. Her party boycotted the election.

Bangladesh’s last three elections were plagued by turmoil and violent clashes between supporters of the dominant political parties and the police. Sheikh Hasina secured her victory by arresting opposition leaders and silencing critical voices. The government itself acknowledges that 11,000 people were arrested in the months leading up to the January 2024 elections, while the BNP claims the number to be as high as 25,000. Four people died in an arson attack on a train during opposition protests.

Hasina’s government has long been accused of corruption and close cooperation with economic elites, whose interests her policies protect. Yet with the beginning of Hasina’s fifth term as prime minister, a new, more disturbing development has come to the fore: the consolidation of Bangladesh as a quasi-single-party state, an autocratic “personocracy” embodied by the AL leader.

From Autocracy to Democracy and Back

Electoral politics in Bangladesh have been riddled with irregularities since the first national election was held in 1973. AL and BNP soon emerged as the two most significant parties, mostly contesting elections against each other. A wide variety of smaller parties are also active in the country, among them the Communist Party of Bangladesh and other leftist groups, as well as the Jatiya Party, now led by the widow of former military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad.

Ostensibly to make elections fair and orderly, in 1996 the BNP government at the time introduced a constitutional amendment that elections were always to be held under non-partisan Neutral Caretaker Governments (NCG). This system was first tested in the 1991 elections to support the transition away from military rule. NCGs constituted a government for an interim period to hold elections and ensure a smooth handover.

Removing the ruling party from power through relatively free and fair elections under the NCG system marked a new experience in the electoral history of Bangladesh, where until then the ruling party had been assured re-election. In 2011 however, the AL-led government changed the constitutional provisions for caretaker governments and revived the long tradition of single-party rule. This and other increasingly restrictive measures have narrowed the space for democracy in Bangladesh. The amendment to the constitution and its aftermath have dragged the country back into the past, tainted with deadly violence, killings, political repression, poll irregularities, vote rigging, and gross human rights violations.

The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections in protest against the amendment. Beyond the electoral boycott, the party and its alliance engaged in traffic blockades, strikes, bombings, political intimidation, and attacks on polling centres and officials on election day,. Human Rights Watch termed the 2014 election “the most violent”, including the setting fire to over 11 polling centres, the killing of three officials, and injuries to 330 law enforcement officials. Minority communities also came under attack during and after the election in several places. Moreover, HRW documented the killing of 11 opposition leaders and activists before, during, and after the election.

Voter turnout was as low as 22 percent, anonymously confirmed by an election commission official to international media. The Bangladesh Election Commission’s officially claimed voter turnout, however, was 40.04 percent. After the elections, Hasina’s government remained in power and unlawfully arrested many opposition leaders, naming them as suspects in violent attacks. According to analysts, the BNP lost a significant numbers of supporters due to the violence before and during the 2014 elections. The party soon changed its strategy and peacefully participated in the 2018 elections, but failed to regain popular support.

If the last two elections ensured that the party in power prevailed over everything, the 2024 election made ‘personocratic’ governance in Bangladesh an inevitable reality.

The 2024 elections once again saw the BNP demand Sheikh Hasina’s resignation and handing over of electoral responsibilities to a neutral authority. The incumbent government refused.

As was widely covered in media reports, the road to the 2024 election was littered with intrigue, machination, massive crackdowns, mass arrests, violence, and misuse of the state apparatus. Top opposition leaders were arrested, some of them under false charges. Tazreena Sajjad of American University states that press freedom in the country has declined massively with the passing of laws such as the 2023 Cyber Security Act, which allowed for the detention of hundreds of people including teenagers, academics, writer, students, and political activists who used social media to criticize the government.

Many in Bangladesh’s intellectual community and civil society groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the state of Bangladesh’s democracy and its descent into autocratic rule. In addition, Bangladesh’s youth have notably depreciated faith in the democratic process, are jaded by the corruption in the institutions of governance, and have little interest in participating in electoral processes.

Such levels of disenchantment were heightened during the lead-up to the 2024 elections, which were marked by police violence against opposition leaders, disinformation campaigns, and disturbing political rhetoric — such as Sheikh Hasina calling the BNP a “terrorist” group — that created a political environment of distrust, fear, and disillusionment.

The clear election result therefore came as no surprise. Out of the 300 seats, 153 members were elected uncontested. The opposition claims that Awami League propped up “dummy” candidates as independent contesters to make the elections look fair. The Awami League apparently encouraged those within its ranks to contest elections as “independent” candidates to make the election look more inclusive. In many cases, the race was between AL nominees and AL independents. The Election Commission estimated a 40 percent voter turnout, one of the lowest in the history of Bangladesh.

The Road to Personalized Autocracy

The 2014 and 2018 elections ultimately provided the Awami League with the necessary ingredients for a formula that came to fruition in 2024, laying the foundation for the party’s personocracy. If the last two elections ensured that the party in power prevailed over everything, the 2024 election made “personocratic” governance in Bangladesh an inevitable reality. Any discussion of the 2024 national elections remains incomplete if one does not reflect on the foreground of personocracy that emerged during and in the aftermath of the 2014 and 2018 elections.

The US Department of State issued a statement condemning the violence against opposition members and concluding that the elections were not “free or fair”. A few days later, however, the international community’s attitude changed significantly. The international community, especially the US, EU and Canada, expressed their displeasure over the violence during polling, but declared they would work with the ruling Awami League government. Several nations, including India, Russia, and China, congratulated Hasina.

Bangladesh appears trapped in a situation where no opposition party can offer a popular political alternative, while Sheikh Hasina’s government holds all the instruments to keep criticism in check.

The elections took place in a challenging economic situation for Bangladesh, which has been heavily affected by the rupture of global supply chains and rising inflation since the pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine began. Bangladesh’s most important trade partners, the US and the European Union, warned prior to the election that they could impose trade sanctions on Bangladesh if elections were not free and fair. Such sanctions could deepen the foreign exchange crisis Bangladesh faces, which experts attribute to questionable policy decisions and corruption in Hasina’s cabinet. Bangladesh had to ask the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for support in 2023, while China, Russia, and India offered direct investments. That said, no steps towards sanctions have been taken since election results were announced.

One can view personocracy as a Bangladeshi version of neo-patrimonial governance with a captive electoral system. It denotes a government where the ruler not only has absolute power and assured electoral victory, but also metamorphoses into a system itself, as if to say, “I am the state.” It is more than fascism and, at the same time, more than autocracy. In such a framework, the ruler successfully subordinates all four pillars of democratic governance, including the legislature, executive, judiciary, and the press. The ruler does the same to the party they represent, and the party in turn predominantly symbolizes the person in power.

Neither democratic values, norms, nor moral or ideological compulsions have any role to play, as the ruler becomes a “System-Creator”. The fervently pro-government media also contributed immensely to the rise of an unaccountable, personocratic government in the country. As a result, the whole state machinery has come to depend on the political and personal wishes and patronage of one person.

For now, Bangladesh appears trapped in a situation where no opposition party can offer a popular political alternative, while Sheikh Hasina’s government holds all the instruments to keep criticism in check. The country would need the relevant political actors to engage in a constructive dialogue on electoral reform to confer legitimacy to future elections. But do not expect the government to initiate such a process anytime soon.