Bangladesh's Descent Into Authoritarianism

6 MINS READMay 31, 2016 | 09:14 GMT
Bangladesh’s Descent Into Authoritarianism
A Bangladeshi flag waves next to an image of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Forecast Highlights

  • The ruling Awami League will continue to pursue legal charges against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, pushing Bangladesh toward one-party, authoritarian rule.
  • Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will use religion selectively to expand her support.
  • Political strife has given rise to extremist attacks, which Hasina will blame on the opposition.
  • A lack of government deficit and debt reduction and the deteriorating international perception of Bangladesh because of extremist attacks will limit investment, preventing Dhaka from reaching its target of 7.3 percent economic growth.

Two trends will shape the future of Bangladesh, the world's eighth-most populous nation. The first is its descent toward single-party authoritarianism. The second is increasing insecurity brought about by extremist attacks.

When it comes to authoritarianism, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leader of the center-left Awami League party, has employed four tactics to marginalize rival politician Begum Khaleda Zia, chairwoman of the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). First, in 2013, the Supreme Court under Hasina's administration banned Jamaat-e-Islami — the country's largest religious party and an ally of the BNP — from participating in elections on the grounds that the party's charter is illegal. (The charter did not invest sovereignty with the people; it promoted Jamaat-e-Islami as a religious party, which are banned in Bangladeshi politics; and it is considered foreign, since it was created in India.) In response to the ban, clashes broke out in which 150 people were killed. Though Jamaat-e-Islami was not a major parliamentary force, its grassroots organizational abilities helped the BNP mobilize voters.

Second, Hasina fulfilled a campaign pledge and instituted the International War Crimes tribunal, a court charged with prosecuting crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence, during which an estimated 300,000 to 3 million people died. Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the division of Bangladesh — then known as East Pakistan — from West Pakistan, and the party's leader, Atiur Rahman, was accused of leading an anti-nationalist militia during the war known as Al-Badr that was responsible for the deaths of scores of people. Since December 2013, four senior members of Jamaat-e-Islami have been hanged (including most recently Motiur Rahman Nizami). In creating the tribunal, Hasina weakened Jamaat-e-Islami by exploiting an issue that still resonates in the Bangladeshi national consciousness and solidified her party's stance as the sole torchbearer of the 1971 independence movement. Even so, though there is support for addressing war crimes, the trials have been criticized for being unfair. For instance, the defense is allowed to present only four witnesses while the government can present an unlimited number. 

Third, Hasina took advantage of the BNP's boycott of the January 2014 elections, ensuring an Awami League victory, even though the election had the lowest voter turnout in the country's history. Hasina's Grand Alliance coalition currently holds 280 of the 300 seats in parliament, granting her a monopoly on legislation. Moreover, because the parliament is unicameral with seats decided through proportional representation, the most populous state, Dhaka, has the strongest representation. The urban interests of Dhaka thus take precedence over rural interests, exacerbating the inequality between different parts of the country. Villages are left with a governance deficit that continues to be filled by nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and religious organizations, some of which harbor extremist views.

And fourth, Hasina's government is pressing charges against various high-ranking BNP members as well as influential members of the media. In January, Zia, the BNP's chairwoman, was charged with sedition because she questioned the death toll figures from the 1971 independence war. (Hasina asserts that the 3 million figure, the most liberal estimate, is correct, while Zia suggested the figure might be less, though within the range of figures that have been estimated.) Then on May 11, Zia and 27 BNP members were charged with arson for their alleged role in the firebombing of two buses in Dhaka in 2015. Other influential figures are also facing trial: Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star, the country's largest English language daily, is being tried on 79 separate charges (including 17 acts of sedition and 69 acts of defamation) for publishing corruption allegations against the military. Matiur Rahman, the editor of Prothom Alo, was charged with sedition in February for "hurting religious sentiments."

Rising Militancy

In addition to this growing authoritarianism, the second trend — an increase in violent attacks against writers, activists, religious minorities and other members of society whose rights are meant to be enshrined in a secular state — will determine the future of Bangladesh. Notably, Bangladesh has suffered extremist attacks before. In August 2005, Bangladeshi Islamist militant group Jamaat al Mujahideen detonated 400 bombs nearly simultaneously across the country. In recent months, a new wave of targeted attacks has taken place. On April 24, Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor at Rajshahi University, was found hacked to death. On Feb. 21, assailants beheaded Jogeshwar Roy, a Hindu priest, in the northern district of Panchagarh. And on May 14, Mongsowe U Chak, a 75-year-old Buddhist monk, was found hacked to death in a village in the district of Bandarban. The Islamic State has claimed these attacks, but Hasina has vigorously denied the presence of the militant group in the country, presumably because she wants to maintain foreign investment — especially in the country's garment-export industry, which after China is the world's largest, accounting for 80 percent of the country's export revenue. Moreover, she has shrewdly blamed the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami for the attacks, giving herself a pretext to further marginalize both groups in the name of enhancing security.

And by marginalizing Zia, the BNP's conservative constituency no longer has a party to represent its interests. Hasina, who wants to capture this electorate, will pragmatically adopt conservative positions, especially on matters of religion. It explains why she recently said people should respect the religious beliefs of others, in response to secular Bangladeshi bloggers, who are critical of Islam. It also explains Hasina's silence regarding the Supreme Court's recent motion to revoke Islam as the official state religion. The court ultimately turned down the motion on the grounds that the petitioners were unable to prove that the law recognizing Islam as the state religion harmed them.

Hasina has made the political calculation that if she can sustain the country's 6 percent rate of growth while creating jobs, reducing poverty and increasing health care access, then the electorate will overlook single-party rule and reward the Awami League during the 2018 elections. Despite public unrest, she has had success. Zia attempted to derail the economy through nationwide strikes in 2014, but the economy has still grown by 6 percent. By comparison, Pakistan's economy, which has not faced nationwide strikes, is growing at 4.5 percent. Under Hasina's administration, inflation has fallen, debt and poverty have been reduced, and foreign exchange reserves have spiked. Even so, until Hasina can lower government deficits and debt accumulation (the administration will unveil a new value-added tax in July), draw greater foreign direct investment and implement infrastructure development, economic growth will fall short of the administration's 7.3 percent growth target. But since the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami are being marginalized, their power to launch protests and nationwide strikes to dent the economy is restricted. How Bangladesh manages to navigate these shifting political, economic, and security dynamics will determine the country's future.

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