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It's a year of elections in South Asia — and on Sunday it's Bangladesh's turn

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's a year of elections in South Asia, and on Sunday it's Bangladesh's turn. It's a Muslim-majority country of more than 160 million people. For years, it was seen as a messy but functioning democracy. But critics say not anymore. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF G.M. ASHRAF AND SAROWAR SONG, "JOY BANGLA JITBE ABAR NOUKA 2.0")

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Supporters of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, like to blare this campaign song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY BANGLA JITBE ABAR NOUKA 2.0")

GM ASHRAF AND SAROWAR: (Singing) Once again, Sheikh Hasina. Once again, Sheikh Hasina. Once again, Sheikh Hasina. Joy bangla.

HADID: Sheikh Hasina has been prime minister for 15 years. Before that, she was the leader of a powerful opposition party and a former prime minister. Then in 2007, she was arrested by the country's military-backed government. They accused her of extortion. She said it was to stop her from fighting for her people's rights. Nearly a year after she was jailed, she was released and elected prime minister again. She's won two elections since, both, according to observers and critics, were problematic. Shahidul Alam is an activist, photographer and critic of Sheikh Hasina. He says...

SHAHIDUL ALAM: People who've died, people who were in hospital, these people who were not in the country, whatever, they all turned out to vote.

HADID: Sheikh Hasina's determination to win can be partly traced to her bitter relationship with the main rival party, the BNP. And ahead of these elections, Sheikh Hasina has escalated a crackdown on opponents. They've been holding increasingly bold rallies, like this one in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: Meenakshi Ganguly is deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

MEENAKSHI GANGULY: Over 10,000 people were arrested, over 100,000 cases lodged against people, including, as it turns out, people that are dead. I mean, the arbitrariness could be comical if it were not so tragic.

HADID: The situation can feel tragicomic. Opponents of Sheikh Hasina held a tongue-in-cheek meeting in a graveyard, asking the dead to please not vote this time. Rivals, real and imagined, are hounded. Last week, Bangladesh's Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus was sentenced to six months jail for violating laws at his nonprofit. So the main opposition party is boycotting the polls again, and Sheikh Hasina will likely win again. But critics say her party feels obliged to make these elections appear democratic. Shahidul Alam.

ALAM: They are trying to build these sort of dummy oppositions.

HADID: Alam says Sheikh Hasina's party is asking its own members to run against each other to make the elections look like a contest. Her party insists the elections are fair and Sheikh Hasina remains popular domestically and internationally. Ganguly of Human Rights Watch.

GANGULY: Bangladesh government took in over a million Rohingya refugees. And it has tried very hard to break the cycle of poverty. Those are all good things.

HADID: Sheikh Hasina has also transformed Bangladesh into a key exporter of clothes to the West, and her government has overseen ambitious infrastructure projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: This campaign song reminds voters that Bangladesh has launched a satellite and built a metro. Some analysts say that isn't enough now. Inflation is biting the country's poorest. There's growing political discontent despite the crackdown. Pierre Prakash is the director of the International Crisis Group's Asia program.

PIERRE PRAKASH: It's very unlikely that the protests will die down. And so you're looking at potentially prolonged political violence in the country.

HADID: Political violence which might undermine what Bangladesh has accomplished under Sheikh Hasina.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR SONG, "GLASS AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.