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Strengthening democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has an important role to play in maintaining regional stability, viewed especially from India’s perspective. It has performed this function admirably until now: in the last 10 years, the two countries have shared a paradigm of collaborative growth due largely to Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s concerted efforts to strengthen the domestic front by first clamping down on terror outfits – from ultras from India’s North East to home-grown ones, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the fountainhead[1] of Islamic extremism.

The clean-up was necessary, but in the process, a political void has been created in Bangladesh. There are no alternatives to Prime Minister Hasina, who is now in her third consecutive term. Such imbalance poses a serious risk to the political stability of Bangladesh and the region because this country is an important element in India’s Act East Policy. A stable Bangladesh has contributed to peace in the Bay of Bengal, and India’s North East, which serves as a bridge with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). While India’s relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka have had their fluctuations, Bangladesh played an anchoring role in promoting multilateralism through the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Any instability in Bangladesh can, therefore, have an impact on the region.

The current state of equilibrium has been hard-won – considering the country’s century-long conflict-ridden history. Bangladesh, a part of Pakistan and partitioned with it in 1947, took only 24 years to become independent, but en route, it acquired Pakistan’s culture of military coups and army rule. The Army took control within four years of Bangladesh’s Liberation (December 1971), destroying democratic political institutions.

It was during this period (1975-1990) that Bangladesh saw the rise of the Jamaat as a social influencer and non-State actor, patronised by the Army and its dictators, who floated their own political fronts to retain power through sham elections. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was floated by Zia-ur-Rahman (1977-1981), husband of Begum Khaleda Zia, and the Jatiya Party by General Ershad (1982-1990).

Since 1991, though Bangladesh has had democratically elected governments, the Army’s stint in power continued till 2008 through the constitutional provision for caretaker governments, the last one staying in place from 2006-2008. This provision was subsequently withdrawn, but until 2008, Bangladeshi politics revolved around the Army (and its dictators) and Islamists. All other parties, such as the National Awami Party (NAP), Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Jasad), the Workers Party – born out of social, democratic movements, got decimated. The only exception was Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League.

The results of the December 2008 election were self-explanatory: this was when Hasina came to power for a second term, her earlier tenure being between 1996 and 2001. The League got 49 per cent of total votes polled. Its alliance partner, Jatiya Party, stood third with 7%. The BNP, and its partner, Jamaat, got 33% and 4.6% votes, respectively: 95% votes were cornered by four parties, with two getting nearly 80% votes. Nearly 40 parties contest elections in Bangladesh, but the results indicated the depth – or the lack thereof – of multi-party democracy.

The December 2018 elections showed similar results, with the Awami League winning nearly 77% of the votes, the BNP 12% and the Jatiya Party 5%. The top three parties secured 95% votes. The polling percentage in 2008 and 2018 was the same; intriguing, therefore, is the fact that even the Jamaat’s votes were transferred to the Awami League.

Now, the Jamaat has been barred from participating in elections: the 2018 verdict on the War Crimes Trial saw three top Jamaat leaders executed, one got a life sentence and others fled the country. The 2018 verdict on a grenade attack[2] in 2004 inflicted major damage on the party, with two former ministers, and Khaleda’s son and acting chairman of the party, Tarique Rahman, being served the death sentence. Rahman is in exile. Khaleda is serving a jail term since February 2018 and is barred by law from contesting elections. The Jamaat’s coalition partner and principal Opposition party, the BNP, is in disarray, with terror links established in more than one instance, and the party supremo and former prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, in jail.

Thus, during Hasina’s rule, Bangladesh’s electoral democracy, which had been suffering from a lack of depth, witnessed a further shrinkage in the number of viable options. The BNP-Jamaat coalition has weakened, but other political parties did not avail of the space this created. This does not bode well for democracy.

The three-decade long Hasina-Khaleda contest is also over since age is in the way: both are in their 70s. Sheikh Hasina commands popularity, but her party’s student and youth wings are regularly in the news for taking the law into their hands. The recent killing of an engineering student for criticising government policy shook the nation.

People are becoming restless at the absence of a mainstream political alternative: this was evident from the road safety protests in 2018 that stalled Dhaka for days.

Yet another worrying factor is that staunch Islamists may not be able to be kept down for long. In a pre-election move, Hasina mended fences with the Hefazat-e-Islam,[3] which controls unregulated madrasas, to keep the Islamists divided. The ploy worked in the 2018 election, but it may not in the future.

The availability of choices – a precondition of democracy – is currently missing in Bangladesh. This is risky in the context of the country’s volatile past, and the influence of the armed forces in politics. Sheikh Hasina deserves commendation for adding to the country’s – and the region’s – momentum of growth. But for it to be sustainable, she has to leave space for an Opposition and democratic institutions to flourish.

 Pratim Ranjan Bose is Deputy Editor of Business Line and a commentator on regional cooperation and connectivity issues.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] Kumar, Anand, “Return from precipice: Bangladesh’s Fight Against Terrorism”, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, 2012, https://idsa.in/system/files/book/book_BangFightTerrorism.pdf

[2] Daily Star, “August 21 attack: ‘State-backed crime’ punished”, 11 October 2018, https://www.thedailystar.net/august-21-carnage/21-august-grenade-attack-verdict-tarique-rahman-awarded-life-1645090

[3] Bose, Pratim Ranjan, “Is softening of stance leading to consolidation of Islamists in Bangladesh?”, The Hindu Business Line, April 21, 2017 https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/is-a-softening-hasina-leading-to-consolidation-of-islamists-in-bangladesh/article9657242.ece