Hasina’s dominating win feared as enabling authoritarianism

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (C) speaks during an election campaign rally in Dhaka on December 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 03 January 2019
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Hasina’s dominating win feared as enabling authoritarianism

  • The new Cabinet is expected to be sworn in by Jan. 10, but members of the opposition alliance, which won only seven seats, said they would not take the oath

DHAKA, Bangladesh: While Sheikh Hasina is set to begin her third consecutive term as Bangladesh’s prime minister following a landslide election victory, critics say having such an overwhelming majority in Parliament could create space for her to become even more authoritarian.
The Hasina-led coalition won 288 seats in the 300-seat Parliament in Sunday’s election, amid allegations by the opposition that the voting was rigged. Hasina rejected the accusations at a briefing with foreign journalists a day after the vote.
The new Cabinet is expected to be sworn in by Jan. 10, but members of the opposition alliance, which won only seven seats, said they would not take the oath. In response, the ruling party’s general secretary said by-elections would be held for those seats. This would result in a Parliament with virtually no opposition.
Over her last 10 years as prime minister, Hasina took up many development projects, from power generation to the building of a seaport, but her record of maintaining human rights was widely criticized by activists and international rights groups. Some of those critics now say her new government could be even more iron-handed and aggressive.
More than a dozen people were killed in election-related violence Sunday, and the election campaign was dogged by allegations of the arrests and jailing of thousands of Hasina’s opponents.
Dozens of activists took to the streets of Dhaka on Tuesday to protest the alleged gang rape by Hasina supporters of a mother of four who had voted for the opposition.
The opposition had blamed Hasina’s government for arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of dissenters, while the jailing of a renowned photographer on charges of spreading propaganda against the government sparked criticism at home and abroad. The enactment of a digital security law ahead of the election was criticized by journalists and rights groups who said it would choke free speech and media freedom.
The opposition accused the security agencies and the police of intimidation and threats to prevent them from campaigning ahead of the elections, and there were allegations that the Election Commission and other departments overlooked the complaints.
“Sheikh Hasina’s government during its previous term displayed an increasingly authoritarian streak, deeming all legitimate criticism to be anti-state,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “The ruling Awami League’s student and youth groups had free rein to bully and intimidate, while civil society faced pressure to self-censor.”
“It was particularly unfortunate that senior officials refused to address concerns of victims, including families of disappeared persons,” Ganguly said.
She doubted that the next government would be more tolerant.
“We remain concerned that a government that has allowed impunity for serious violations like extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances will persist with little tolerance for dissent and constructive criticism,” Ganguly said.
Hasina trumpeted her development agenda to woo voters and said people voted her to power again for the development bonanza. She took up some big projects, including a bridge more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) long, a nuclear power plant and metro rail system for Dhaka, the capital.
But an analyst said it was not a legitimate argument.
“When you say that we’ll give you development but you have to sacrifice your rights, you have to sacrifice your voice,” said Asif Nazrul, a law professor at Dhaka University and a government critic. “Because if you look at the constitution of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, nowhere is it written that we are going to give you development but forget your political and civil rights.”
Still, Hasina enjoys a lot of support, especially from religious minorities in the Muslim-majority nation who say she has safeguarded their rights.
At the Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka, Hindus poured in on Tuesday to pray and get a glimpse of the Goddess Durga, something they say was not possible under previous governments.
“She has definitely unleashed and freed us minorities,” Jayanti Sharma, a Hindu devotee who was visiting from a nearby town, said of Hasina.
While Parliament could be without a practical opposition, no major opposition leaders even exist in the country to pose a serious threat to Hasina.
Her archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is in jail. A court deemed Zia ineligible to run for office because she was sentenced to more than two years in prison after being convicted of corruption. Her supporters say the charges were politically motivated.
In Zia’s absence, opposition parties formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old former member of Hasina’s Awami League who served as foreign minister under Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader.
Hossain is a leader of his small party, Gono Forum, which does not have much popular support. Hasina and Zia, on the other hand, have much larger support bases and attract hundreds of thousands of supporters to their rallies.
On Monday, during a briefing with foreign journalists and election observers, Hasina came down heavily on the opposition. In a wide-ranging discussion, she refused a suggestion that she offer her political foes an olive branch.
“The opposition you see, who are they? The main party, BNP, it was established by a military dictator (Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman) who introduced martial law in this country. There were no constitutional rights for the people,” Hasina said.
She dismissed questions about the fairness of the election.
“I feel that it was a very peaceful election,” Hasina said. “Some incidents took place, some of our Awami League party workers were killed by the opposition. I’m very sorry for that, but I always appreciate our law enforcement agencies, also our people who were working hard to have this election in a peaceful manner.”
But there have been allegations of widespread irregularities with the election.
On Sunday, The Associated Press received more than 50 calls from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and of being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside polling booths.
Those complaints could not be verified independently.


UK PM Theresa May loses historic Brexit vote

Updated 4 min 30 sec ago
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UK PM Theresa May loses historic Brexit vote

  • Defeat now raises the question about whether she will try again, is removed from office, delays Brexit -- or if Brexit even happens at all
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tables a motion of no confidence in May's government

LONDON: Britain’s parliament on Tuesday resoundingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, triggering a no-confidence vote in her government and plunging its plans to leave the EU into further chaos.
MPs voted 432 to 202 against May’s plan for taking Britain out of the European Union, the biggest parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British political history.
With a deal that took nearly two years to craft in tatters and her government’s future hanging in the balance, EU leaders sounded a note of exasperation, urging Britain to come out and say what it actually wants.
“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” EU president Donald Tusk tweeted.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, warned of a heightened risk of a “no deal” Brexit — an outcome that could disrupt trade, slow down the UK economy, and wreak havoc on the financial markets.
The government of Ireland — the only EU member state with a land border with Britain — said it would now intensify preparations to cope with a “disorderly Brexit.”
And German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, representing the EU’s most dominant economy and leading political voice, called the vote “a bitter day for Europe.”
Most lawmakers have always opposed Brexit, as have some leading members of the government, creating a contradiction that has been tearing apart Britain ever since a June 2016 referendum began its divorce from the other 27 EU states.
Moments after Tuesday’s outcome, which was met with huge cheers by hundreds of anti-Brexit campaigners who watched the vote on big screens, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn submitted a motion of no-confidence in May’s government, calling her defeat “catastrophic.”
The vote is expected on Wednesday at 1900 GMT.
May sought to strike a conciliatory tone, telling MPs they had the right to challenge her leadership and promising to hold more talks to salvage a workable solution by the rapidly approaching March 29 Brexit deadline.
She promised to hold discussions with MPs from across parliament to identify ideas “that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House.”
“If these meetings yield such ideas, the government will then explore them with the European Union.”
Downing Street said May will then return to parliament with a new Brexit proposal on Monday.
With their nation again in turmoil, noisy supporters and opponents of Brexit, rallied outside the ancient parliament building in London.
“It could end up being the day that will lead to us leaving with no deal!” said 25-year-old Simon Fisher, who backs a swift and sharp break with the EU.
A much larger rally nearby in support of a second referendum turned Parliament Square, dotted with statues of past UK leaders, into a sea of EU flags.
Economists said the scale of May’s defeat — on the upper end of most predictions — now also put pressure on Brussels to make more meaningful compromises.
The pound surged higher against the dollar and euro after the vote, seemingly buoyed by May’s promise to seek a compromise with her opponents.
“Markets project beliefs and the underlying belief is that nobody’s going to be committing economic suicide,” BK Asset Management’s Boris Schlossberg said.
But businesses voiced alarm about the outcome, which does nothing to resolve uncertainty that has been dampening the UK investment climate for months.
“Financial stability must not be jeopardized in a game of high-stakes political poker,” warned Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the body governing the British capital’s massive financial district.
May made it her mission to carry out the wishes of voters after she became prime minister a month after the referendum, putting aside her own initial misgivings and stating repeatedly that “Brexit means Brexit.”
But her deal raised concern that Britain could end up locked in an unfavorable trading relationship with the EU.
Criticism of the deal was focused on an arrangement to keep open the border with Ireland by aligning Britain with some EU trade rules, if and until London and Brussels sign a new economic partnership — a tortuous process that could take several years.
Arlene Foster, head of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party upon which May relies for her parliamentary majority, said May needed to win binding concessions from Brussels to secure her vote.
“Reassurances whether in the form of letters or warm words, will not be enough,” said Foster.
“The prime minister must now go back to the European Union and seek fundamental change to the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Speculation is growing on both sides of the Channel that May could ask to delay Britain’s divorce from the EU after almost half a century of membership.
But a diplomatic source told AFP any extension would not be possible beyond June 30, when the new European Parliament will be formed.