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Bangladesh transforms despite its vicious politics

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n overview of a floating vegetable market for the poor people besides the rail tracks close to the station during the country wide strike at Mohakhali in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1 January 2015 (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Bangladesh’s social, economic and political development is one of the great success stories of the past 25 years. But today it is Bangladesh’s politically dysfunctional ‘battling begums’ — Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — that hold the country back.


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Bangladesh has emerged from military rule as a fledgling democracy struggling to build essential economic and political institutions. It has made great strides in drawing children into schools, improving gender equality, boosting maternal and child health, and reducing poverty. Politically, there have been four successful elections in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The opposition has won each time, an unmatched record in Asia.

These achievements are all the more remarkable given that since the first meaningful election in 1991 — which followed a people’s revolt against military rule — the losing party has never accepted the election results. To this day, the quality of elections in Bangladesh remains poor because both political parties lack integrity and demand the right to manipulate the outcome.

Since 2009 the traditional five-year rotation of political power between the two big parties has been replaced by open-ended majoritarianism. Hasina’s government has gained great influence in the judiciary, silenced media critics and, critically, amended the constitution to cancel the caretaker government system for elections. These trends are worrying. The question in 2016, and probably for the rest of the decade, is what politics without an effective opposition party will look like.

The AL government, like the BNP-Jamaat coalition that ruled between 2001 and 2006, has hounded opposition leaders by filing court cases against them. Many of them are in jail, in hiding or have fled. The government has also gone after the BNP’s electoral ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist Islamist party.

A war crimes court has sentenced to death and hung several Jamaat and BNP leaders for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Legal scholars and the United Nations have found that the trials were flawed, though the Bangladesh government has rejected such findings. More hangings, including that of the Jamaat’s chief, Motiur Rahman Nizami, are expected in 2016.

The BNP is a mess. It has been in opposition since 2006 and has long lost its power of patronage. Its leader, Zia, is frail and faces charges of corruption. Its rudderless and divided leadership has been making bad choices. In 2014, it boycotted the elections because it feared the government would rig the election and believed that Western governments would force another election. But this allowed the AL to win an unprecedented re-election without a popular mandate. In early 2015, the BNP, in a mindless campaign to oust the government, resorted to killing civilians. This discredited it as a democratic force.

Going forward, Zia’s dynasty faces an interrelated triangle of self-inflicted problems. First, Tarique Rahman, Zia’s son and heir apparent, is in exile in London and faces criminal charges in Bangladesh. This complicates the BNP’s central slogan: ‘Ziaur Rahman is our past. Khaleda Zia is our present. Tarique Rahman is our future’. Second, the BNP is struggling to convince India that the country’s secular traditions would be safe under its rule. Third, Zia and her inner circle refuse to cut ties with the Jamaat, which opposed Bangladesh’s independence and promotes a conservative Saudi Arabian strand of Islam in what is a nominally secular and Sufi country.

The parliamentary system has continued without meaningful opposition and probably will do so until 2019 when the next national election is due. Neither the BNP nor the Jamaat have any members in parliament. A court banned Jamaat from taking part in 2014 because it puts God above democratic process.

All this notwithstanding, social progress has continued with improving health outcomes, rising life expectancy and falling poverty. Bangladesh remains self-sufficient in food production. And while progress towards women’s rights is slow, more women are entering the labour force and receiving an education.

Survey data shows that most people believe their children will fare better than them and feel that their own financial position is improving. The average household does not look towards the government or foreign donors to solve their problems. Concern with corruption is universal, but the biggest reported social problem is dowry. Surveys also show that most Bangladeshis are strongly committed to a moderate strand of Islam and reject violence.

The economy has continued to chug along at around 6 per cent growth — with inflation falling, unemployment low and the current account close to balance. Remittance inflows by more than seven million Bangladeshi overseas workers continue to boost rapid spending growth of consumer durables. Rural areas — where the majority of Bangladesh’s 160 million people live — are changing rapidly with improving availability of food, electricity and health care. The agricultural sector is mechanizing and diversifying in response to rising incomes in the cities.

But there are clouds on the horizon. The economy is slowing: export growth has fallen below its long-term trend and far fewer workers are taking up jobs in the Gulf countries than in the late 2000s. Faster growth is needed to provide better jobs for the two million people entering the labour force every year. But, beyond all these domestic challenges, the greatest risk to the economy is a slowing global economy.

The past 25 years have seen astonishing and unexpected transformations in social and economic welfare. Unless something extraordinary happens, Bangladesh looks to be headed for a political transformation involving the decline of at least one political dynasty. The BNP is still dreaming of a great comeback. Yet few Bangladeshis can imagine the enfeebled opposition presiding over Bangladesh’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2021.

Tom Felix Joehnk writes for The Economist.

Forrest Cookson is an economist.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

2 responses to “Bangladesh transforms despite its vicious politics”

  1. Most of the things that have been said in this article may be already known and making the rounds in the lounge rooms of many Bangladeshis. However, the key message that I believe the article has given are in the following observations that, “The BNP is still dreaming of a great comeback. Yet few Bangladeshis can imagine the enfeebled opposition presiding over Bangladesh’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2021.” I largely agree with this but at the same time wish to argue that it depends on a number of factors. For example, if by some some stroke of miracle BNP manages to reform, democratize itself and promote leadership from grass-root in the interim, things may look somewhat different from what is now but as things stand now, such a prospect looks increasingly unlikely. Having said this it also has to be stated that there is no guarantee that the ruling party would be running the 2021 50th anniversary celebration either. With the diminishing of liberal opposition and given the current repressive techniques that are being used to suppress all forms of open opposition, the real opposition may have gone underground – many believe that a spectre of seething discontent that is brewing is being worked on by a hidden form of extremist fundamentalist opposition and more importantly, with the weakening of open opposition another scenario may also emerge and be on the rise – in the coming years the ruling party and its cohorts that are already quite corrupt and thuggish are likely to become more corrupt, more abusive and in the context of the culture of patronage based politics that Bangladeshi politics is known for, more intra-party rift prone (the rise of rival candidates against the party nominated ones by the Awami League High Command in the recently held local government election indicates such a trend), that in the end may create opposition from within, seeking bed fellows that be strage but holding at least one common agenda. Hence, while I agree with the article’s assertion that BNP many not see its ‘dream’ of a ‘come back’ materialize in 2021, given a number of several other dynamics that are currently raging within and across nations it is little difficult to predict how things would finally shape up four years from now. Whatever happens, Bangladeshis cannot afford to see fundamentalists triumph over liberalism and the way to defeat fundamentalism is neither through dagger nor through ‘development’ (these days some argue, wrongly, that ‘development’ is an acceptable trade-off of democracy) but through unadulterated democracy. As a matter of fact it has to be made abundantly clear that development is no anti-dote to fundamentalism and in fact when development is pursued through an environment of corruption and authoritarianism, it breeds inequality, embeds injustices and spreads frustrations that fill the ranks of fundamentalists, sanctified as crusaders against injustices!

  2. Development is a political process. Development cannot proceed without political establishment. Therefore the fundamental premise of this article is some what flawed. It is the politics , in author’s words vicious politics that eventually contributed into Bangladesh’s development. There is little scope to see development and politics as separate variables.

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