Sheikh Hasina: 'Iron Lady' for supporters, 'autocratic' leader for critics

IANS Photo

IANS Photo

Dhaka, January 8 (PTI): Sheikh Hasina, admired by her supporters as “Iron Lady” for development works and providing stability to the once military-ruled Bangladesh but criticised as an “autocratic” leader by opponents, is among the world's longest-serving female heads of government.

Hasina, the 76-year-old daughter of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has been ruling the strategically located South Asian nation since 2009, and her victory in the one-sided controversial election will further tighten her grip on power.

She was elected for a record fourth consecutive term and fifth overall term in the 12th general election held on Sunday, amid pre-poll violence and a boycott by the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former premier Khaleda Zia and its allies.

Born in erstwhile East Pakistan (now in Bangladesh) in September 1947, Hasina became active in politics while studying at the University of Dhaka in the late 1960s. She served as her father's political liaison during his imprisonment by the Pakistani government.

After Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, her father Mujibur Rahman became the president and then prime minister of the country. However, in August 1975, Rahman, his wife and their three sons were assassinated in their home by military officers.

Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana survived the purge as they were abroad. Hasina, who spent six years in exile in India, was elected as the leader of the Awami League, a party founded by her father.

In 1981, Hasina returned home and became vocal about democracy in the country ruled by the military, which placed her under house arrest on multiple occasions.

In the 1991 general elections, the Hasina-led Awami League failed to secure a majority. Her rival Khaleda Zia of the BNP became prime minister.

Five years later, Hasina was elected prime minister in the 1996 general elections.

Hasina was voted out of office in the 2001 elections but returned to power with a thumping victory in 2008 polls. Khaleda Zia-led BNP has been left in the lurch since then.

Hasina escaped an assassination bid in 2004 when a grenade exploded at her rally.

Soon after coming to power in 2009, Hasina set up a tribunal to try 1971 war crimes cases. The tribunal convicted some high-profile members of the opposition, sparking violent protests.

Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party and a key ally of BNP, was banned from participating in elections in 2013. BNP chief Khaleda Zia was sentenced to 17 years in prison on corruption charges.

The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections but joined the one in 2018, which party leaders later said was a mistake, alleging that the voting was marred with widespread rigging and intimidation.

In the 2024 elections, the BNP and its allies boycotted the votes, demanding polls under a non-party caretaker government. They alleged that Hasina cannot deliver credible voting.

The polls were fought by 27 political parties, including the parliamentary opposition Jatiya Party. The rest were members of the ruling Awami League-led coalition, which experts dubbed as the “satellite parties.”

The BNP’s boycott, however, raised questions about the credibility of the polls, which registered a low turnout.

India described the Bangladesh elections as an “internal matter”, while the Western powers, including the United States, called for credible and inclusive polls.

The US threatened to deny visas to officials and politicians whom it deems to be “undermining the democratic election” and in response, Hasina told parliament America was “trying to eliminate democracy” by engineering her ouster.

Hasina has presided over one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and improved living standards in the South Asian nation in the past 15 years. The dubbed her the “Iron Lady” several years back and since then it has been used by the Western media to refer to her.

Her supporters credit Hasina with humming development projects and providing stability in the country, which has witnessed military rule for years.

Hasina won praise for the handling of the world’s biggest refugee crisis as over a million Rohingyas have taken shelter in Bangladesh after fleeing for their lives in neighbouring Myanmar to evade persecution after a 2017 army crackdown at their homeland. Hasina is also credited for skilfully negotiating the rival interests of India and China as Bangladesh is virtually sandwiched between the two Asian giants. She got the support of both the big neighbours and Russia ahead of the elections.

Bangladesh's per capita income tripled since Hasina took power in January 2009 while its gross domestic product (GDP) clocked at a growth rate of 7.28 per cent last year.

The country of nearly 170 million people has achieved near self-sufficiency in food production and raised average life expectancy to levels higher than neighbouring India.

People close to her say the premier is a “workaholic” and she performs the daily Islamic rituals.

Rising energy and commodity prices in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, however, forced her government to seek IMF support amid falling foreign reserves.

The workers in Bangladesh’s main export-earning garment industry are dissatisfied with a recent wage hike and have lodged protests in recent months.

Yet, economists say, growth is fairly robust, at just under 6 per cent in the last fiscal while the IMF recently appreciated her government’s commitment to its bailout programme and called Bangladesh's economy “broadly on track”.

Political opponents call Hasina’s government an “autocratic” and corrupt regime, while many civil society figures and rights groups accuse it of rights abuses.

The 2022 US human rights report highlighted widespread abuses, yet security forces enjoyed impunity. Corruption has been the other major issue.

After 15 years of rule, Hasina is now labelled as an “autocrat” or “fascist” by her opponents alongside some political pundits.
Hasina is the mother of a mental health expert daughter and an ICT specialist son, who is also her ICT affairs adviser. Her husband was a nuclear scientist who died in 2009.