Bangladesh’s Incomplete Public Works: A Hurdle for Ruling Party’s Re-Election

Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League has been promoting big-ticket infrastructure projects, including an airport terminal and a nuclear plant, as it campaigns for reelection. Critics argue that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s self-praise in South Asia is a tactic to shift attention from democratic backsliding, as she has used infrastructure projects as evidence of prosperity since 2009. However, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has played down the significance of these achievements, even though it boasted about its own infrastructure-building program.

Critics of the ruling party argue that infrastructure projects historically have acted as an easy vote-getter, as they have historically acted as easy vote-getters. Former professor at Chittagong University, Nizam Uddin Ahmed, said infrastructure projects historically have acted as an easy vote-getter and cautioned about foreign funds borrowed to implement them. Critics argue that the Awami League’s use of infrastructure projects as proof of prosperity is a tactic to shift attention from South Asian democratic backsliding to its own self-praise.

Bangladesh’s President Hasina Abdülkar has been criticized for constructing mega projects with foreign loans, raising concerns about the country’s future when repayment is due. In 2014, the opposition boycotted the general election, leaving the ruling party to win mostly uncontested seats. In 2018, the ruling coalition secured victories in more than 90% of constituencies amid widespread allegations of fraud. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has threatened to boycott the election again and demanded an impartial interim government before the vote, scheduled for December or January 2024. Western countries have pressed Hasina’s government to hold free and fair polls, with the U.S. threatening visa restrictions against people suspected of tampering with the vote and imposing sanctions on officials connected with the Rapid Action Battalion.

In 2022, Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, Hasina inaugurated the Padma Bridge, the country’s largest-ever infrastructure project, to much fanfare. The 172-km rail project, an extension of the bridge project, will cost another $3.5 billion, with more than half financed through loans from China. The Dhaka Elevated Expressway, an elevated highway, was inaugurated in September, but only 60% of the 19.73-km highway has been finished. Hasina also joined Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually at a ceremony to mark the formal handover of uranium to Bangladesh for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

Bangladesh’s nuclear power plant will not be included in the national grid until 2025, despite officials praising the country’s entry into an elite club of nuclear powers. The country’s new terminal at Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport was inaugurated two days later, but passengers will not have immediate access. The Japan-funded project, costing $1.7 billion, is being built by a Chinese company at a cost of $1.1 billion, half of which will be financed by China. The tunnel is expected to be fully open by April 2024.

Muhammad Faruk Khan, an influential Awami League lawmaker, believes that yet-to-be-completed projects will still serve the public, as they will inform the people ahead of elections about the government’s implementation stage. However, BNP leader Swapan doubts whether the public will be persuaded by the glitz of the new developments, stating that without democracy, no development projects can protect an undemocratic government from the wrath of the public.

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