Bangladesh, January 2024: a sensitive national election with multiple stakes, closely watched by the international community


By Olivier Guillard, a specialist in Asian issues, research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).

How to cite this publication

Olivier Guillard, Bangladesh, January 2024: a sensitive national election with multiple stakes, closely watched by the international community, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, November 10, 2023.


The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.

Half a century after its difficult, violent, marked by human tragedy and deep stigmas yet to be fully healed arrival in the concert of nations as an independent nation [1], the People's Republic of Bangladesh, the world's 8th most populous country [2], an essential piece of the South Asian puzzle open to the Indian Ocean, will be holding its 12th general elections in two months' time, 5 years after its last national poll [3]. A political, partisan and civic event that is always sensitive in this developing state with its proverbial and sometimes disturbing political violence [4], divided along sharp and deep fault lines [5]; a sensitive national event in many respects for the authorities, the population, the polarized electorate and the security forces, who are often quick to use harsh tactics to bring street protests to heel; often when the latter obey the opposition's grievances, some may suggest…

A national political event arousing (legitimate) interest in Asia and beyond

Scheduled ahead of similar political events in neighboring South Asian nations [6], these five-year elections will put the spotlight on this dynamic [7] and resilient actor, led for the past fifteen years by a no less stubborn head of government with a tormented political (and family) destiny [8], Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (76), stainless steel leader of the Awami League, in power since January 2009.

This parliamentary ballot is also the subject of particular attention outside the borders of this country constrained by its small size (barely ¼ the size of mainland France, for a population 2.5 times larger), and terribly exposed, year after year, to the vagaries of nature (cf. catastrophic floods; recurrent destructive cyclones), as well as to the various tragic consequences of climate change over recent decades.

On the Indian subcontinent and its northern bangs in particular, New Delhi and Beijing (the country's two largest trading and investment partners) are keeping a close eye on the election campaign taking place in the "land of Bengal". Both capitals gauge with their expert and interested eyes the chances of the head of government Mrs. Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League to further extend their hold on power, as connoisseurs of the possibilities and uncertainties of a possible (but rather unlikely) governmental alternation bringing the BNP back to power (in an opportunistic coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami). Both India and China ideally favor a serene, non-violent, if possible dispassionate, environment leading up to the forthcoming ballot; with no guarantee, of course, of any certain response to these desiderata. [9]

''The India-Bangladesh partnership has expanded from trade and investment to connectivity and security in which people-to-people contact has played an important role as catalyst (…). The two governments created a win-win situation and rely on each other for growth, development, and regional'' summed up an Awami League parliamentarian this summer, describing the (good) Indo-Bangladeshi relations of the past decade (the ''Golden Chapter'' according to some observers), nurtured in particular by the obvious camaraderie [10] characterizing relations between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, both of whom have been in office in New Delhi and Dhaka for a long time now (since 2014 for N. Modi, 2009 for S. Hasina).

A noteworthy (anti-terrorist) security record

From an Indian standpoint that the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has not only cracked down on Islamic militancy and terrorism domestically, it has also cooperated with India to keep Indian Insurgent groups operating in the North-East at bay.

Over the past few years, the Awami League government has achieved satisfactory results in terms of counterterrorism. The situation thus far has remained under control, with Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies having taken it upon themselves to ensure that terrorism does not become a major national security challenge once again. As the Bangladesh government has articulated and implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism and prevented the use of its territory as a terrorist safe haven, the results are there for all to see.

Hence, South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP [11]) reports that through 2022, there was not a single case of a fatality related to proscribed Islamist terrorist groups reported in Bangladesh, continuing with the trend established in the previous year 2021. SATP reports that 2022 witnessed a total of 263 arrests of Islamist terrorists/radicals belonging to various outfits, including 200 Jamaat-e-Islami-Islami Chhatra Shibir (JeI-ICS), 12 Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqia (JAFHS), 10 Jamaat-ul-Muslimeen, 8 Ansar al-Islam (AAI), 7 Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), among others.

With elections scheduled to be held early next year, and activities of opposition parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies intensifying, the security situation in Bangladesh is likely to become fluid and uncertain. The successes of the Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies against the Islamists are a signal achievement undoubtedly, but radicalization remains widespread. Additionally, the criminal-terror nexus in the Rohingya refugee camps (in the border region with Burma, in the Southeast) have created new and serious threats to internal peace and security in Bangladesh.

Beijing, Dhaka, and President Xi Jinping's tumultuous (and costly) Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

Last June, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed Beijing's interest in the (very stable) government in Dhaka in a few precise words: ''We firmly support Bangladesh in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity'' [12]; especially since Bangladesh joined (in 2016) the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping [13], bringing it a considerable windfall in terms of foreign direct investment [14] and business partnerships: ''Today, 240 Chinese companies dominate all major sectors of the Bangladeshi economy'' as P. Gupta (ORF) explained in a well-documented study this summer [15] on China's contemporary economic and industrial presence in Bangladesh.

Washington, the democratic prerequisite... and sanctions

In Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the road to this January election is also being closely watched, not least by the US administration, which reiterates at every possible opportunity how committed it remains to the organization of a free, honest, and fair election, taking place under satisfactory security conditions, and ensuring the triumph of democratic values over partisan agendas. As a reminder, this spring (May 2023), the US government announced that it would refuse to issue visas to Bangladeshi nationals ''undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh'' [16]. London, Brussels (EU) and Tokyo adopted a similar stance towards Dhaka. In return, the Bangladeshi government promised the skeptical capitals a free and fair election [17].

Certainly, the establishment of a neutral and non-partisan interim government [18] well in advance (3 months) of these elections – demanded by the opposition (BNP [19]) to no avail – seems likely to remain a dead letter, frustrating a section of public opinion and giving rise to major popular mobilizations of discontent, such as the 100,000 demonstrators close to the BNP marching in the capital Dhaka on Saturday, November 4, 2023. This show of force (followed by a 48-hour general transport strike) was seen as a sign of defiance by the government, which immediately ordered its security forces to arrest no less than 8,000 opposition activists [20].

Awami League and Sheikh Hasina on the road to a new mandate?

This summer, with a headline as eloquent as it was worrying (''If Sheikh loses January election, Bangladesh could face prolonged political and economic instability''), India's leading daily The Hindu (August 20 edition) suggested that the ''departure of Awami League from power would not only worry India but also raise concerns about regional unrest and violence in South Asia''. With just two months to go before the January elections, this scenario seems to be far from reality. On the strength of her overall record (admittedly not perfect, and a tad controversial in terms of her treatment of political dissidence and leading opposition figures...) and her undeniable authority, the longest-serving female Asian Prime minister can be confident of her chances [21] to extend her imprint on national political history by a few more years.

[1] In 1971, following secession from Pakistan, of which contemporary Bangladesh was then the "Eastern Province". Admission of the People's Republic of Bangladesh to the UN in September 1974.

[2] One of the most densely populated per km² according to the World Bank (1300 h/km²).

[3] ''New challenges, flexible partnerships-election season commences in South Asia'', Raisina Debates, September 5, 2023.

[4] During the January 2014 election campaign and vote, over 400 people were killed among opposition supporters, ruling party supporters and security forces.

[5] Notably around a trio of rival political formations from which emerge in the first place the party in power (since 2099), the Awami League (AL) of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition formation, and, lagging (in terms of number of votes in the assemblies) of the latter the politico-religious Jamaat-e-islami party.

[6] India holds its 18th general election in the spring of 2024; the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is due to invite its voters to the polls in February 2024.

[7] Average annual GDP growth over the past decade close to +7%.

[8] Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the late father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1st head of government of independent Bangladesh (between January 1972 and January 1975), and president at the time of his assassination in Dhaka in the summer of 1975 by the army during the country's 1st coup d'état.

[9] ''As Elections Near, 3 Scenarios for Bangladesh'', The Diplomat, August 14, 2023.

[10] The Diplomat, September 1, 2023.


[12] Press briefing, June 14, 2023.

[13] Mme Sheikh Hasina met with Chinese President recently during the BRICS summit in South Africa (August 2023).

[14] A researcher at the Indian think tank ORF estimates the latter at a whopping $26 billion between 2016 and 2022.

[15] ''Chinese BRI investments: A cornerstone of the expanding China-Bangladesh ties'', Observer Researcher Foundation, August 10, 2023.

[16] ''Three Things to Watch as Bangladesh's National Election Season Heats Up'', USIP (Washington), June 15, 2023.

[17] ''Bangladesh promises free, fair elections in response to US visa curbs'', Reuters, May 25, 2023.

[18] Called the Caretaker government system (CTG) in Bangladesh. Used with some success in the 1991, 1996 and 2001 elections.

[19] A political formation now notoriously weakened by divisions within its leadership between the camp of former head of government Khaleda Zia (imprisoned since 2018) and that of its current president, Tarque Rahman, exiled to the UK since 2008…

[20] ''Report: Bangladesh Arrests 8,000 Opposition Activists'', Voice of America, November 5, 2023.

[21] ''Bangladesh: Survey Reveals Premier Remains Popular despite Growing Public Discontent'', USIP (Washington), August 9, 2023.