“I never think I have to remain in power,” said Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at Gono Bhaban, her official residence, hours after she won a historic third consecutive term following an election marred by allegations of rigging.
When asked about the absence of political opposition in Bangladesh, Hasina, who was extremely relaxed and cracking jokes, took the example of the Congress party in India. “How many seats did they get in the last election? They could not focus on who would be their PM. Such an old and established party, but who will be the leader of the party? It was not clear. So people didn’t vote for them,” she said.
“Do you remember the BJP had just two seats when Rajiv Gandhi won the election? Now, they are in power. So there’s a chance for other parties as well if they work properly,” she said with a smile as her party workers clapped.
Her Awami League-led ruling coalition won 288 seats in Sunday’s election, while the Opposition alliance, which includes the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), got just seven.
At the Gono Bhaban, located on the north corner of Parliament House in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka, Hasina interacted for over an hour with foreign journalists and observers. Flanked by her advisers, H T Imam and Gowher Rizvi, she said, “I can’t accept authoritarian and military regimes. I am running the country very liberally. But, I will not allow terrorism, drugs and corruption, and I will do my best to save our people from these ills.”
Prioritising the fight against terrorism, she has targeted the Jamaat-e-Islami, impressing New Delhi. She has also targeted the BNP on “corruption”.
As the interaction began, she said, “We had a bad experience in the past, but have been trying to establish a system where people can cast their votes freely and fairly so that they can exercise their franchise without any problem.”
Voter intimidation and rigging have been major allegations against the government, which has returned to power with more than 80 per cent of votes. “You can see how enthusiastically people voted… the women and the young generation,” she said. “If we want to develop the country, democracy has to prevail,” she added. She then talked about the assassination of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and her own return to Bangladesh after six years in exile.
Referring to her father as the “father of the nation”, she said, “We have had bad experiences. Thank god, in the last few years, we have been able to establish democracy. These elections are very important for us.” “So far, so good,” she said, and called the polls “peaceful elections”, although she conceded that some instances took place where some of “our party workers were killed”. At least 20 people are said to have been killed in clashes on voting day.
She said the election provided a “good opportunity to continue with the development of our people”. “Economic development is very important, and people are getting the fruits of development.”
About the Opposition, she asked, “Who are they? It was established by a military dictator. The military dictator first captured power, then entered politics, and then introduced rigging.” She was referring to the BNP’s establishment by General Zia-ur Rahman, husband of Khaleda Zia, the current chairperson of the Opposition party.
And their “allies are war criminals”, Hasina said, referring to the Jamaat-e-Islami. “They don’t have a leader. Because of the corruption case, she is in jail,” she said, referring to Khaleda Zia. Zia’s son, Tarique, was also convicted and is a fugitive. “If a political party’s leadership is fugitive, what can you expect from them?” she said.
About her victory, she said, “You asked why did people vote for me. I can ask you, why not? People enjoy the fruits of development and they are beneficiaries, not myself, not my family members or my government.”
Listing the work she had done, she said, “What do people want? People want to fulfil their basic needs. When they see the government is doing that, they are going to vote for them.”
About the BNP-Jamaat alliance, she said people resented their “terrorist activities”, and added that there was corruption and nepotism during their regime. “There was no progress then. Now, people are enjoying a better life. My thing is no one should be left behind.” “Why did the BNP lose? It’s their fault, they are responsible,” she said.
She said BNP candidates were not campaigning, adding that they would only ask for votes on mobile phones. “They had something on their mind,” she said, going on to indicate that the Opposition were involved in some conspiracy.
“Our priority is that economic activity should continue. We are still a nascent democracy. I have nothing to hide,” she declared with an air of confidence.
During the interaction, she joked that the reason for there being so many talk shows in Bangladeshi news channels was that Bengali people love to talk. She also dismissed reports of rigging as “fabricated”, and said the Election Commission would take action against any irregularities. “We never encourage such activities, we will take action. It’s not acceptable,” she said, and added that problems in 17 out of 40,000 voting stations did not even amount to one per cent.
She also said that she had not taken any action against the Opposition. “In 2001, they killed our people. We have had bad experiences, but we don’t do that. We have not harassed them,” she said.
On the question of showing an olive branch towards the Jamaat, she rolled her eyes and said, “They are a terrorist outfit. Every party can organise themselves politically, but they cannot do terrorist activity.”