Sheikh Hasina and the Future of Democracy in Bangladesh

Sheikh Hasina arrives at her official residence, draped in a luxurious silk saree, the embodiment of an iron fist in a velvet glove. The 76-year-old Prime Minister of Bangladesh, with her silver hair, is a political phenomenon who has led this 170-million-strong country from a humble jute producer to the fastest-growing economy in the Asia-Pacific region over the past decade.

In office since 2009, after an earlier term from 1996 to 2001, she is the world's longest-serving female head of government and is credited with subduing resurgent Islamists and once assertive military. Having won more elections than Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, Hasina is determined to extend her involvement in the upcoming January elections. "I am confident that my people are with me," she said in an interview with TIME magazine in September. "They are my main strength."

Few rebuttals are as sharp as the 19 assassination attempts Hasina has survived over the years. In recent months, supporters of the main opposition party in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have clashed with security forces, leading to hundreds of arrests, torching of police cars and public buses, and the deaths of several individuals. The BNP has vowed to boycott the elections, as they did in 2014 and 2018, unless Hasina transfers power to a caretaker government to oversee the elections. (Their request had historical precedent but is no longer required after a constitutional amendment.)

Bangladesh has taken an authoritarian turn under the leadership of Hasina's Awami League party. The last two elections were condemned by the U.S., EU, and other countries for significant irregularities, including ballot stuffing and thousands of phantom voters. (She received 84% and 82% of the votes, respectively.) Today, Khaleda Zia, a two-time former prime minister and BNP leader, is seriously ill and under house arrest on dubious corruption charges. Meanwhile, an overwhelming number of cases have been filed against BNP members—4 million, and independent journalists and civil society also complain of vindictive persecution. Critics argue that the January election is equivalent to a coronation, and Hasina is seen as a dictator.

"the ruling party controls the entire state machinery, whether it's law enforcement agencies or the judiciary," says BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who faces 93 charges, including vandalism and murder, and has been jailed nine times. "Every time we raise our voices, they oppress us."

Bangladesh is significant. It is the largest contributor of UN peacekeepers and regularly participates in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercises. Its vibrant diaspora is characteristic of business and creative communities in Asia, Europe, and America. The U.S. is the largest source of foreign direct investment and a major destination for Bangladesh's exports. And as one of the few leaders of developing countries that (albeit belatedly) condemned Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Hasina has proven her utility to the West, not least by hosting around 1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar.

But Washington is concerned about Bangladesh's drift toward despotism. Hasina was not invited to the last two summits for democracy held in the U.S., and in May, the country imposed visa restrictions on any Bangladeshi election that undermines elections. In response, Hasina told parliament that the U.S. is "trying to destroy democracy" by orchestrating her exclusion. Responding to her allegations, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter D. Haas insists that Washington "scrupulously takes no sides."

However, at a time when the U.S. is desperately trying to counter China's growing regional presence at every turn, the sharpness of American official policy speaks volumes. "It seems that the U.S. has made Bangladesh a testing ground for its foreign democracy promotion policy," says Michael Kugelman, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. "The big risk is that all this pressure will have unpleasant consequences and push the government to redouble its efforts to stay in power."

What a fourth consecutive term for Hasina will mean for Bangladesh is a contentious question. Most Americans only know the country through labels sewn onto their T-shirts and trousers, but this is a tough test in which the Muslim population mixes more than in any Middle Eastern country, with a significant minority comprising about 10% of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others. Despite Islam being a secular state according to the constitution, a military dictator in 1988 made Islam the state religion, creating a paradox that became fertile ground for radical fundamentalists.