Freedom and Fairness of the 2024 Bangladeshi Parliamentary Election

In early January, increasingly autocratic leader Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League won her fifth term in office as Prime Minister. For months preceding the election, violence and protests broke out as a result of controversy surrounding Hasina’s rule. These protests were repressed as Hasina became notorious for cracking down on free speech. The main opposition party, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) declined to participate in the election, calling for an interim caretaker government, which Hasina refused. Her victory was highly controversial among BNP members and has been recognized as an unfree and unfair election by several countries.

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Executive Summary

In early January, increasingly autocratic leader Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League won her fifth term in office as Prime Minister. For months preceding the election, violence and protests broke out as a result of controversy surrounding Hasina’s rule. These protests were repressed as Hasina became notorious for cracking down on free speech. The main opposition party, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) declined to participate in the election, calling for an interim caretaker government, which Hasina refused. Her victory was highly controversial among BNP members and has been recognized as an unfree and unfair election by several countries.


For most of Bangladesh’s history, some form of tribal or autocratic authority has held primary responsibility for governance; thus, democracy is somewhat of a novel phenomenon in Dhaka, and presently struggling to disrupt the South Asian state’s political inertia. Following the Partition of India in 1947, Bangladesh was incorporated as the eastern component of the state of Pakistan, distinguished from India based on its majority-Muslim population. However, issues quickly arose relating to the sovereignty of East Pakistan, mainly inflamed by the refusal of the Pakistani government to recognize Bangladesh as an official language of the state. By the 1960s, Bangladeshi nationalism had spurred the development of patriotic organizations such as the Awami League, whose efforts towards independence for Bangladesh resulted in the Six Points Movement of 1966, outlining the general democratic framework for an independent Bangladeshi state. Tensions escalated politically through 1971, at which point Awami League leader and future Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibir Rahman (Mujib) announced the independence of Bangladesh and initiated a brief war with Pakistan, which concluded after three weeks due to Indian military aid. 

Over half a century removed from independence, Bangladesh’s political history has since been defined by rapid economic growth and urban sprawl, and a general instability that has challenged democracy through various assassinations, coups, and suppression of individual freedoms. Following the establishment of the Provisional Government under Sheikh Mujib in 1971, Bangladesh suffered a crisis of transition in which a generation of underqualified and inexperienced elites quickly assumed political power with little framework for democratic governance. The Bangladeshi government was codified with a Constitution in 1972, establishing a strong executive and representative parliament, but any stability promoted through the creation of this document was mitigated with the assassination of Prime Minister Mujib in 1975. Following the assassination, a group of mid-level military officers took control of the country until 1990, during which time democracy was functionally eliminated in favor of martial law under military dictators - one of these dictators, US-supported Lt. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, assassinated in 1981, is the primary political ancestor of the modern Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Martial law in Bangladesh continued until 1990, at which point democracy was restored in Bangladesh through a popular uprising

Bangladesh’s Anti-Authoritarian movements of 1990 not only reflected the widespread desire to eliminate marital law but also to bring about constitutional reform to prioritize a parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh instead of an over-strengthened executive - this desire led to a 1991 constitutional referendum which transferred much of the President’s former power to the Prime Minister. These reforms of the 1990s allowed for the establishment of the modern Bangladeshi political system, including many of the trademarks for which it is presently known: the use of a caretaker government as an interim authority to preside over major elections, more widespread popular support for human rights and political transparency, and a tendency of the opposition to accuse the majority of compromising democracy and subsequently boycott the government at large (as was seen with the parliamentary opposition in March 1994). The 1990s also established Mujib’s descendent Sheikh Harina as the dominant force in Bangladesh politics, leading the Awami League’s (now a political party) parliamentary majority as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001 and working to both resolve domestic conflict in Bangladesh and better establish its global presence by fomenting American investment into the Bangladeshi energy industry. However, Harina’s tenure still suffered from substantial political unrest, leading to an oppositional boycott of 1999’s parliamentary by-elections and the establishment of a caretaker government in 2001 to contain further instability. 

To better contextualize Bangladeshi politics, the Awami League is defined by its nationalistic and social democratic positions, and generally opposed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), defined by its big-tent conservatism; the latter was formerly led by chairwoman Bergum Khaleda Zia, who has served as the alternating Prime Minister of Bangladesh with Harina from 1996 through the present. Both are related to former leaders of Bangladesh, Zia being the widow of the late President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman (assassinated in 1977) and Harina being the son of Mujib as previously mentioned. Despite relative ideological proximity, the rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP has repeatedly resulted in political violence and seemingly polarized the nation’s entire political system. Their rivalry is exemplified by the 2006-2008 political crisis, during which time the Awami League led a series of violent protests deriving from certain appointments by the caretaker government viewed as unconstitutional - this unrest led to protests of the 2007 elections, and eventually culminated in the caretaker government using the military to bring about order and charged Hasina with murder charges over the political violence, although she would receive no conviction for her role in the violence. Many view these events as a culmination of widespread frustration over the rampant corruption and authoritarian nature of 21st-century democracy in Bangladesh: each party saw it only as a sign of the opposition’s malicious nature. 

Hasina has ruled continually as Prime Minister since her 2008 election - during that time, Zia was prosecuted on charges of corruption and sentenced to 17 years in prison by the Bangladeshi government, although her sentence was suspended in 2020 over health concerns given that she abstains from political activity. Hasina, addressing the UN General Assembly in 2022, stated that her administration successfully reduced poverty rates in Bangladesh from 41.5% in 2006 to 18.7% in 2022, while also becoming a global champion for sustainability due to Bangladesh’s climate vulnerability: however, critics have emphasized her suppressions of human rights and political freedoms, with Amnesty International drawing special attention to the democratic backsliding that has occurred under her regime. In 2011, the neutral caretaker government under which Hasina was initially elected was dissolved for the first time since its inception, allowing for the presiding government to fully regulate Bangladesh’s democratic system; in 2014, elections in Bangladesh were the subject of international controversy following boycotts from the opposition and calls from the United States and Australia to hold for second elections held under neutral caretaker governments; in 2018, the elections were again tarnished with widespread allegations of voter intimidation and irregularities. That year, Transparency International found electoral anomalies in 47 of 50 seats randomly polled, building concern of Bangladesh’s transition from an electoral democracy to an autocratic civilian government. Bangladeshi democracy is also unique in that 50 of the nation’s 350 parliamentary seats are reserved for women under a quota system instituted by Hasina; many of these seats are automatically filled solely on the basis of existing political connections, with no democratic influence.

In 2024, Sheikh Hasina was elected to a fifth term with an estimated voter turnout of 40% without the presence of a neutral caretaker government as the opposition demanded, again leading to an electoral boycott; the US Department of State condemned these results as not being “free or fair”. Notably, Bangladeshi democracy has also garnered greater significance in larger geopolitical relations, with China and Russia accusing American politicians as unnecessarily interfering in the sovereignty of Bangladesh by criticizing its democracy; the United States’ criticisms also derive from violence and human rights violations in Bangladesh, including the 600 political disappearances identified by Human Rights Watch under Hasina’s regime. Key issues during the 2024 Bangladeshi election included the December 2023 garment worker’s strike, a culmination of tensions between the working class and the government over labor conditions in Bangladesh’s low-paying textile industry, and an ongoing economic downturn in the country since 2022. 285 of the 300 electable seats in Parliament were filled with the Awami League or close allies - the Atlantic Council considers the results to be indicative of Bangladesh's irreversible transformation to a one-party state, and likely foretelling of further persecution of Hasina’s political enemies in the future. 

Tried Policy 

A. U.S. Efforts 

The United States has attempted to ensure that democratic values do not continue to be eroded ahead of the Bangladesh Election. On May 14th of 2023, the US federal government announced that it ““would impose visa restrictions on individuals and their immediate family members, if they are responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” The international community regards this as a direct counter-movement from the US to urge the Bangladesh’s Awami League (AL) government to ensure that elections are free and fair. Additionally, the United States government has imposed numerous rounds of sanctions on several officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in response to the numerous accounts of human rights abuses. This has caused a temporary positive reduction in extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances by the Bangladesh government. However, the visa restriction policy had already been predicted to fall short on foreign policy goals. 

B.Domestic Efforts

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, has been leading street protests calling on the AL to step aside to allow elections to be held under a neutral caretaker government. However, the AL has responded to this by using violent methods such as teargas and police intimidation to disperse the peaceful protesters. 

Current Stances

On January 7th, the general parliamentary elections were held in which Sheikh Hasina won her fourth consecutive term in power. According to unofficial numbers from the Election Commission, the Awami League party won 222 out of 298 seats. Among the ruling party winners were actor Ferdous Ahmed and former Bangladesh cricket captains Shakib Al Hasan and Mashrafe Mortaza. The celebrity wins were good news for the fans, but on the whole, this was a controversial win for Awami League. 

Last year, BNP had demanded that a neutral caretaker government conduct the polls which Hasina rejected. As a result, BNP led multiple staged demonstrations to boycott the elections. The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party, also held demonstrations.

Since October, Hasina has accused the opposition party of holding anti-government protests. In one protest, social media posts showed BNP activists setting fire to multiple vehicles. 200 BNP activists were arrested, and Chief of Detective Branch Harun-or-Rashid alleged to reporters that the activists had been planning sabotage and that police had found small bombs. Leading up to the election, at least four people were killed in a train fire that the government called arson. Polling booths, schools and a Buddhist monastery were also set on fire.

The BNP has accused Hasina’s government of targeting its supporters and opposition politicians on invented charges prior to the polls. They claimed that over 20,000 of their members have been jailed in recent months. Hasina’s government argues that the number is lower and that the arrests were justified. News media companies have been receiving different estimates of arrests. Attorney General A.M. Amin Uddin told The Associated Press that between 2,000 and 3,000 people were arrested. The country’s law minister told the BBC that 10,000 were arrested

These tensions led to a voter turnout of what is believed to be 40%, though some say the true turnout was even lower. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the government of "filling prisons with the ruling Awami League's political opponents".  Many fear that Bangladesh may become a one-party system.

International views on Hasina’s win were divided. Though each country has trade ties with Bangladesh, the US and the UK condemned the elections while China, Russia and India congratulated Hasina for Awami League’s win.

The US and the UK have expressed that Hasina’s win was not free and fair. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller said he was concerned by the arrests of political opposition members and urged investigation into the violence. In a similar vein, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office shared concern over the arrests of opposition party members.

As of May 3rd, 2023, the US notified Bangladesh of its new visa policy to encourage fair elections. According to this policy, the US will be able to restrict visas for Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic election process. In particular, those held liable for violence, rigging votes, and unfairly influencing votes will face visa restrictions. In a press release on January 8th, the US nonetheless expressed wanting to continue trade and development relations with Bangladesh. 

As of October 2nd, 2023, Russia delivered uranium to Bangladesh. Russia has been supplying fertilizers, grains and fuel to Bangladesh as well, though prices of these commodities have increased in Bangladesh since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2023, Bangladesh built a submarine base with China’s help titled “BNS Sheikh Hasina”.

India has developed close ties with Hasina ever since she was first elected in 1996. Due to border disputes with China and Pakistan, Bangladesh, which also shares a border with India, helps to maintain India’s security. In the past, Hasina has fought against ethnic insurgency groups in northeast India, some of which were planning operations from Bangladesh. Other than India’s strategic advantage in working with Hasina, they also fear the opposition. India is worried that if BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami take control of Bangladesh politics, they may encourage the return of jihadi groups

Policy Problem

As the sun set and the polling booths in Bangladesh closed shut on January 7 and as banners were installed celebrating Sheikh Hasina’s fifth term, Dhaka’s peculiarly fascinating air of harmonious tuk-tuks was marred with the torching of buses, schools, and hospitals. A resplendent Dhaka had plunged into unimaginable chaos. 

Patrons of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which strictly boycotted the January 2024 general elections, took it to the streets in remonstrance against an illegitimate election. In an interview with The Diplomat, the BNP’s acting Chairman, Tarique Rahman, explained why his party was boycotting the election. “The predetermined upcoming election,” he said, “was non-participatory not just for the political parties, but the voters as well.” 

The son of former Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Rahman, who spent 18 months in jail during 2006-07, has lived in self-imposed exile in London since Hasina acceded to power in 2009.

It would be tepid to say that the recent events have called into question the legitimacy of Ms. Hasina's continuing reign. With reports that Almost 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested, 16 citizens killed, and a further 5500 seriously injured, ordinary Bangladeshis are teetering life and death. 

The Hasina government has never forsaken an opportunity to deliver a disquisition on the enviable economic progress of the country since her winning elections in 2009. As investments in the garment export industry began paying off, the economy experienced such impressive growth that average income levels at one point surpassed India’s. 

Dhaka had become the 2nd largest producer of garments, trailing closely behind only China. Bangladesh also had significant strides in other development areas, from education and health to female participation in the labor force and preparedness against climate disasters. Dhaka, once heralded to roar as Asia's next tiger economy, took a detour through a jungle of setbacks, leaving progress in the rearview mirror.

During the July-September quarter, Bangladesh’s balance-of-payments deficit – its import of commodities, capital, and services higher than its exports – increased to $2.8bn. At the same time, its current account deficit – when a nation sends more money abroad than it receives – increased to $3.93bn. According to central bank data, foreign currency reserves have fallen to a new low of $20.66bn.

In December 2023, earnings through exports, the lion’s share of the ready-made garments (RMG) industry, fell by 13.64 percent to $3.76bn, the lowest in the last 26 months, according to the Export Promotion Bureau.

The flow of remittances, another crucial economic lifeline, has also been volatile.

Since the start of the pandemic, Bangladesh had capped the lending rate at 9 percent for more than three years until July 2023. This gave businesses the scope to grab funds at real interest rates of nearly zero (borrowing rate minus inflation, which was hovering at around 10 percent).

The central bank’s policy to artificially inflate the value of the country’s currency – the taka – also exacerbated inflation.

Now, the blockades brought up on by the oppostion are causing Bangladesh’s economy to lose 65 billion takas ($588m) a day, as per the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), the country’s apex trading body. “All businesses, small and large, are affected by these blockades,” Mahbubul Alam, president of FBCCI, told Al Jazeera. “We have seen how political violence disrupted the economy for a long period back in 2014…. The crisis this time will be even bigger.”

Research on the status quo in Bangladesh would only be complete by considering regional hegemon India. It is widely argued that India’s contribution to the liberation war was imperative for the emergence of the new nation, Bangladesh, from war-torn East Pakistan. In addition, Delhi was the first to recognize Dhaka’s sovereign status. India and Bangladesh entered into a ‘The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace’ for a term of 25 years based on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity while ‘refraining from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.’

It is often argued that during the Indian National Congress regime led by Indira Gandhi and the Awami League in power in Dhaka led by Mujibur Rahman, India–Bangladesh relations reached their zenith. Between 1971 and 1975, Bangladesh became India’s single largest recipient of aid.

Prudent political analysts expected Delhi-Dhaka relations to take a nose dive after the inauguration of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India in 2014.

It was hard to believe that a party pandering to the Hindu anxieties of a potential Islamic takeover in India that had won an unparalleled number of seats in the parliament, leaving the Indian National Congress trailing far behind, would ever continue working with a Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Yet, Delhi and Dhaka’s upper echelons of power surprisingly embraced approaches rooted in realism. National interests had taken precedence over religious discord.

Ms Hasina has always been flamboyant about Dhaka’s close relationship with Delhi. During a visit to India in 2022, she invoked the critical role of India’s government, people, and armed forces as they stood beside the country during the independence war against Pakistan in 1971. 

The Modi administration reciprocated, proposing and signing various trade deals with Dhaka. This Indian backing for the Awami League has triggered sharp criticism from the Bangladeshi opposition BNP, which has perpetually warned of India’s ‘ulterior’ motives. "India should support the people of Bangladesh and not a particular party. Unfortunately, Indian policymakers don't want democracy in Bangladesh," Rizvi, a senior BNP leader, told the BBC.

For Delhi, Ms Hasina had won favor after acting against ethnic insurgent groups of India’s northeast, some of which were operating from Bangladesh. Dhaka depends on Delhi to supply essential commodities like rice, pulses, and vegetables. India has also offered Bangladesh more than a $7bn Line of Credit since 2010 for infrastructure and development projects. 

Delhi hopes its charm and sagacity will earn it the right to construct road and river transport access for its seven northeastern states through Bangladesh.

In return for a strong strategic anchorage gained and to be gained from the Pro-India Hasina administration, the Modi government has turned a blind eye to the longstanding pall over democracy in Bangladesh, going as far as extending a special invitation to Dhaka to join the G20 deliberations in Delhi last September. 

While several Western governments wanted to impose sanctions on Bangladeshi officials over alleged human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, India has been resisting the move, terming the matter internal to Dhaka.

With Beijing’s increasing penchant for warm relations with Dhaka, Delhi has become even more protective of Dhaka. In 2022, almost 90% of Bangladesh’s energy project pipeline depended on Chinese finance, according to the Asian Development Bank. Bangladesh’s foreign minister described China as arriving with a “basket of money” and “aggressive and affordable proposals.”

As the single largest market for Bangladeshi-made garments, the United States is of paramount importance, too. A democracy-conscious Biden administration has previously levied several sanctions against Bangladesh for a failure to safeguard fundamental rights. It most strikingly announced a visa policy in May last year, saying that it would deny visas to those who undermine Bangladesh’s democracy and elections. 

However, in what could usher in a serendipitous thaw in relations, President Biden has written to fifth-term Prime Minister Hasina, expressing his willingness to work together to achieve Bangladesh’s economic goals, as well as to cooperate on regional and global security and humanitarian support, especially for Rohingya refugees. In a regular briefing, US State Department Spokesperson Miller clarified that the US expressing concerns over the election or crackdowns on political activists does not mean it does not have the responsibility to work with the Bangladesh government. 

In a calculated move, the Biden administration appears to have toned down its criticism, strategically aligning itself with the Hasina government to withstand the encroaching influences of China and Russia. Regrettably, this signals the endorsement and empowerment of a fractured democracy.

Policy Options

Following January 7th’s lopsided polls, protests within Bangladesh are anticipated to escalate in severity. Despite the AL’s foundational roots in democracy, nationalism, and socialism, and its pivotal role in spearheading Bangladesh’s independence movement, the AL is expected to adopt a stricter, more authoritarian stance towards protesters to combat the nation’s escalating political turmoil. Should Biden or other Western nations impose further sanctions on Bangladesh, further detriment will be inflicted on the country’s already severely compromised economy. Given Bangladesh’s heavy reliance on imports and the utilization of the US dollar for currency exchange, any sanctions imposed on Bangladesh will be particularly effective. If sanctions were to be implemented, they should be targeted to minimize their destructive impact on ordinary citizens and come with specific prerequisites on actions that must be deployed for the sanctions to be lifted. However, given the devastating impacts that sanctions can have on ordinary citizens regardless of how targetted they are, a more diplomatic and humanitarian approach can be achieved through the establishment of negotiations and open dialogue, as outlined below. 

To initiate peaceful relations, no matter how weak, the AL would have to make concessions to the BNP. Allowing prominent BNP party members to obtain bail, and greater reform surrounding autocratic labor laws and the draconian Cyber Security Act will help the AL prove that it still retains elements of its democratic past, and is willing and able to compromise. The BNP, in return, should ease up on their adamant demands for Hasina to step down. Concessions from both sides will help initiate an open dialogue between the two parties – a necessary precondition for any step towards alleviating tensions within Bangladesh’s aggressive political landscape. International actors can also guarantee the lifting of sanctions, or financial support to alleviate the economic downturn if the AL engages in talks with the BNP. 

The establishment of a more open, peaceful dialogue between the BNP and the AL could result in a rerun of the recent election. Admittedly unlikely given the AL’s staunch affirmation of the election’s supposed legitimacy, there have been cases of reruns in the past. Most notably, in the mid-1990s, the AL secured a rerun of an election in 1996 after most parties boycotted the vote in a similar fashion to the one we saw earlier this year, resulting in shockingly low voter turnout, and undermining the legitimacy of the election. 

The possibility of military intervention should not be ruled out. The military, as the country’s only non-partisan institution, would likely look for robust support from international actors before any intervention. However, should grassroots rebellion become more chaotic, the potential for military intervention would increase. Intervention would likely occur on a temporary basis, with the ultimate goal of facilitating a peaceful transition of power to a more legitimately elected party. 

Further restrictions on the BNP are not unlikely either. In the weeks leading up to the recent election, Hasina intensified critical commentary on the BNP, hinting that the AL may enforce a stricter clampdown on their opposition. Terms such as “terrorists” and “killers” were used to assert Hasina’s notion that the BNP has “no right to do politics,” which experts interpret as justification for a future, more intense restriction on the opposition’s freedoms. The past two years, however, have demonstrated the setbacks of such an approach, with the AL’s attempt to suppress the BNP only catalyzing broader and more intense opposition towards the AL.

It remains in India’s best interests to refrain from endorsing any particular political faction. Given the high degree of uncertainty surrounding which party will control the government in the long term, New Delhi stands to benefit the most from assuming a more balanced position. India’s substantial sway in Bangladeshi politics, coupled with the United States’ significant influence and investment in Bangladesh, ought to be leveraged to facilitate peaceful dialogue between the AL and the BNP. This will underscore India’s commitment to fostering diplomatic relations in South Asia, and strengthen the image of Biden’s values-based foreign policy.


As Sheikh Hasina’s fifth-term victory spurs controversy among the majority opposition Bangladesh National Party as well as international players, it is critical to prioritize a policy approach that blends humanitarian with diplomatic aspects to protect Bangladeshi democracy. Going forward, peaceful resolutions to ongoing violence must involve the Awami League, Bangladesh National Party, and international actors such as the U.S. and India if required. 


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, [Policy Director], Nolan Ezzet and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


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Iniya Karimanal

Foreign Policy Analyst

Iniya is a student at Princeton High School and Stanford Online High School. She spends most of her weekends at debate tournaments arguing various policy-related topics.

Rusmiya Aqid

Policy Analyst

Rusmiya is a freshman at the University of Rochester. She is interested in international development and policy, and draws inspiration from social entrepreneurs like Runa Khan.

Trevor Darr

Foreign Policy Analyst

Trevor Darr is a senior in the International Baccalaureate program in Virginia Beach. Trevor is interested in the intersection of comparative politics, philosophy, and astrophysics, and typically focuses his research on the prevalence of imperialist power structures in present and future global diplomacy; he has a penchant for the avant-garde.

Harry Clark

Foreign Policy Analysi

Shelby Tang

Foreign Policy Analyst

Sanjay Karthikeyan

Lead Analyst, Foreign Policy

Sanjay Karthikeyan is a high school senior based in Singapore and the Co-Founder and CEO of GovMetrix, a youth-led, solution-oriented organization that strives to solve the world’s most pressing problems through collaboration, incisive analysis, and candid discourse.