By Geoffrey Macdonald
Around Dhaka, fresh candidate posters line city streets and commandeered rickshaws cruise neighborhoods with loudspeakers blaring political slogans. Dhaka’s municipal elections will be held on February 1—marking the largest scale election in Bangladesh since the Awami League (AL) and its leader Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a third five-year term in an election marred by claims of fraud in December 2018.
In the aftermath of the 2018 general election, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted local elections, alleging they would be rigged against them. But the BNP is back on the campaign trail. Despite fears of electoral manipulation, the Dhaka municipal election presents yet another showdown between the AL and BNP in Bangladesh’s political and population center.
According to the new public opinion survey of Bangladeshis conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in August and September 2019, positivity about the government and country has rebounded since IRI’s May 2018 survey, but an undercurrent of frustration remains. If key domestic issues continue to go unaddressed, the government may find it difficult to maintain its current levels of support.
Development and Growth Drive Optimism, Government Support
Improvements in development and the economy have driven public optimism in Bangladesh. From 2018 to 2019, the belief that Bangladesh is heading in the right direction rose 14 percentage points to 76 percent, its highest level in the last seven years of IRI’s polling. Large majorities of the public positively rate the economy, security, and political stability and 54 percent believe the economy will improve over the next year. Bangladeshis praised the government’s performance on a wide range of issues, such as providing education and electricity and fighting extremism. In the last year, approval for the Awami League-led national government rose 19 percentage points to 83 percent.
Political and Governance Concerns Continue
In the wake of the controversial December 2018 election, significant portions of the public remain disillusioned with the state of politics and political competition. Three-quarters say the gap between political elites and citizens is growing and roughly half say they are fearful to express political opinions in public. Seventy percent say the Awami League, whose governing coalition holds over 95 percent of the elected seats in Parliament, should include other political parties in its decision-making process.
The top-rated concerns among Bangladeshis are corruption, drug abuse, and unemployment, issues on which the government gets its lowest performance marks. Three-quarters of the public say income inequality is rising. Corruption has “a lot” or “some” impact on 31 percent of Bangladeshis’ lives, and a plurality (19 percent) say corruption is the single most important problem facing the country. The Awami League has recently tried to allay public concerns with a high-profile crackdown on corruption.
Amid violent campus politics, Bangladeshi youth appear disillusioned with formal politics. Over 70 percent of youth respondents say they are unlikely to run for office and over 80 percent have never contacted an elected official, signed a petition, or engaged in other forms of democratic activism.
In a country governed almost exclusively by female leaders since 1991, 56 percent prefer male candidates to female candidates, all other things being equal. But there is a stark gender divide in the results: a plurality of women would prefer a female candidate, whereas 72 percent of men would prefer a male candidate.
International and Transnational Issues
Bangladeshis are deeply concerned about the Rohingya refugee crisis. In 2017, approximately 750,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar amid a military crackdown. The refugees settled in over thirty camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and have benefited from an enormous Bangladeshi and international relief effort.
Initially supportive of their co-religionists from Myanmar, Bangladeshis are clearly frustrated by the strain and instability created by the camps. Only 37 percent rate the government’s handling of the refugee crisis positively. Recent studies show the refugee population has disrupted medical care, reduced wages and job opportunities, and increased social tension in the areas around the camps.
In an era of rising great power competition in South Asia, Bangladeshis are split between the major players in the region. Asked about the impact of India, China, and the United States on Bangladesh, a small majority say India has a positive effect (52 percent), with China (47 percent) and the United States (42 percent) trailing slightly behind.
However, this survey was fielded mostly before recent controversies in Bangladesh around India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (which accuses Bangladesh of persecuting religious minorities, a charge that rankles Dhaka, and provides fast-track naturalization for six religions but excludes Muslims), and the National Register of Citizens in Assam (in which people unable to prove Indian citizenship could potentially be rendered stateless and deported to Bangladesh, which could further inflame anti-migrant sentiment there).
The Awami League-led government, which is closely aligned with India, initially said these issues were India’s “internal matters” but Prime Minister Hasina recently called the citizenship act “unnecessary.” Anti-Indian protest movements have sprouted in Bangladesh and unprovoked violence against Bangladeshi citizens along the India-Bangladesh border has risen recently. There is good reason to believe public sentiment toward India could be shifting.
Renewed Confidence, Persistent Challenges
IRI’s survey shows Bangladeshis have renewed confidence in the country’s economic and development outlook and the government’s performance on some kitchen table issues. Yet problems of corruption, inequality, and dysfunctional political competition persist, and the Rohingya refugee crisis shows no signs of abatement. The BNP is pressing these issues on the campaign trail in Dhaka, with the hopes of winning back power in the nation’s capital. If the country’s challenges go unsolved, it could wear on the Awami League’s favorable standing nationally over the course of its third term.