Bangladesh's prime minister wins a majority in parliamentary elections
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The prime minister of Bangladesh has been elected for a fourth successive term in voting that was marred by a boycott and low turnout. It's the first of a series of elections that are expected to take place in South Asia this year. NPR's Diaa Hadid covers South Asia from her base in Mumbai with a preview and the results from Bangladesh. Good morning - actually, good afternoon where you are.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning to you, Michel.
MARTIN: Let's start with Bangladesh. I take at the result is not a surprise.
HADID: Not a surprise - in the run-up to the elections, the main opposition party had faced a wide-ranging crackdown that had constrained its top leadership. It called for a boycott of elections and a two-day strike over the weekend. And that probably helps explain the low turnout, which at best was around 40%. And you do get the sense that people didn't see the point of voting. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has been in power now for 15 years, and observers say previous elections were also problematic. One analyst who was watching this election is Sadanand Dhume. He is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
SADANAND DHUME: I think what seems to be happening in Bangladesh - it's going from being essentially a multi-party democracy to becoming more of a one-party state, and it's dominated by one leader, Sheikh Hasina.
HADID: Sheikh Hasina, who Dhume says is already the world's longest-serving female head of government.
MARTIN: And I take it there were concerns going into this election, including from the U.S., about the legitimacy of the process there.
HADID: Yeah, there were concerns. And Washington has, in fact, taken a keen interest in these elections. Ahead of the polls, the State Department announced visa restrictions on individuals who they said were undermining democracy in Bangladesh, that largely impacted members of security forces that human rights researchers said were involved in abuses against opponents. But the U.S. hasn't gone further than that so far, and one reason for that may be China. Michael Kugelman is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
MICHAEL KUGELMAN: You now hear U.S. officials refer to Bangladesh as a strategic partner, and I think that's because of how it is perceived. It sits right in the middle of the Indian Ocean region there in the Indo-Pacific. It has become a major battlefield for great power competition.
HADID: So China, for example, has spent billions on infrastructure in Bangladesh as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. They've helped build bridges, highways and even an airport.
MARTIN: So China - clearly a player in Bangladesh. And critics are saying it's turning into a one-party state. But has there been anything positive about Sheikh Hasina's 15 years of rule that her supporters would point to?
HADID: Of course. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina is, by South Asian standards, a standout success story. Islamic militancy has been curbed. The country has taken in around a million Rohingya refugees. Her government has pulled up income levels. And she's transformed Bangladesh into one of the world's biggest clothing exporters. But right now, the economy is in the doldrums, and inflation is biting. And if that continues, there could be more popular discontent. And the prime minister and her party know it.
MARTIN: You mentioned that there are a number of elections expected in South Asia this year. Could you just give us a quick preview of what we might be seeing?
HADID: South Asia is going to see a series of elections this year. It's Bangladesh, next Bhutan, next Pakistan and next India. And analysts say there's a trend, at least among the big three - Bangladesh, Pakistan and India - of eroding democratic norms. These countries are quite different from each other. They all have their own internal dynamics. But we are in a place in 2024 where there is a real, lively concern about the fate of democracy, and that's what human rights researchers are telling me as they look at this region as a whole.
MARTIN: That is NPR's Diaa Hadid in Mumbai. Diaa, thank you so much.
HADID: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.