Sheikh Hasina: Once Bangladesh’s democracy icon, now its ‘authoritarian’ PM

An officer puts an ink mark on the thumb of Sheikh Hasina during Sunday’s general election, in Dhaka [Handout provided by Prime Minister’s office/Reuters]

The 76-year-old wins fourth straight term in controversial election boycotted by the opposition and marked by a low turnout.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once joined her rivals in a fight to restore democracy but her long reign in power has been marked by arrests of opposition leaders, crackdowns on free speech and suppression of dissent.

Hasina, 76, won a fourth straight term and fifth overall in power by sweeping Sunday’s general election, which was boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for the second time in the last three polls.

The daughter of the country’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, Hasina was fortunate to have been visiting Europe when most of her family members were assassinated in a military coup in 1975.

Born in 1947 in southwestern Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, Hasina was the eldest of five children. She graduated with a degree in Bengali literature from Dhaka University in 1973 and gained political experience as a go-between for her father and his student followers.

She returned to Bangladesh from India, where she lived in exile, in 1981 and later joined hands with political foe, BNP chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, to lead a popular uprising for democracy that toppled military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad from power in 1990.

But the alliance with Zia did not last long and the bitter and deep-rooted rivalry between the two women, often called the “battling begums”, went on to dominate Bangladeshi politics for decades.

Hasina first served a term as prime minister in 1996 but lost to Zia five years later. The pair were then imprisoned on corruption charges in 2007 after a coup by a military-backed government.

The charges were dropped and they were free to contest an election the following year. Hasina won in a landslide and has been in power ever since.

As time went on, she became increasingly autocratic and her rule has been marked by mass arrests of political opponents and activists, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.The 78-year-old Zia meanwhile is in ailing health and confined to hospital after corruption charges saw her sentenced to a 17-year prison term in 2018. Top BNP leaders have been sent behind bars while Zia’s eldest son and heir apparent Tarique Rahman is in exile in Britain.

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