DHAKA – Is Bangladesh once again on the verge of a political meltdown? With bomb explosions almost taking the life of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, opposition leader Khaleda Zia charged with murder, and violent protests and arson sweeping the capital,
the country seems poised at the edge of a terrifying abyss.
Of course, Bangladesh has long been plagued by volatility. When the country became independent in the early 1970s, following a bloody war of liberation against the Pakistani Army, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously predicted that the new country’s economy would be its Achilles heel. But Bangladesh has proved him wrong: the country is being undone not by its economy, but by its dysfunctional politics.
After a difficult start, Bangladesh’s economy has developed rapidly, with annual GDP growth averaging roughly 6% over the last two decades. The country’s social indicators have improved significantly as well – exceeding even those of its neighbor, India, in important areas. Given a prolonged period of political calm, Bangladesh would likely be on its way to joining the ranks of middle-income countries.
Instead, political instability is jeopardizing social and economic progress. The two major political parties, the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are engaged in a deadly duel over the very legitimacy of the government.
Over the last eight weeks, about 100 people have died in political violence. Thousands have been wounded. Millions of dollars’ worth of property has been damaged or destroyed. Business activity, including agricultural production, has been disrupted. New investments, both foreign and local, have been largely put on hold. Exports of manpower and garments, the lifelines of the Bangladeshi economy, have suffered serious blows.
Death and destruction surrounding elections and political succession are, sadly, nothing new in Bangladesh. Political violence has been a recurring plague since the country’s birth. During more than four decades of independence, Bangladesh has made little progress in establishing a workable democratic polity.
There seems little reason for such fractiousness in a country that prides itself on its ethnic and linguistic homogeneity – indeed, that emerged from a political struggle to establish the democratic rights of the people of East Pakistan within Pakistan. Bangladesh’s original sin may have been its hurried constitution of 1972, which assigned extravagant powers, with few checks and balances, to the prime minister, a position to be assumed by the country’s revered founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the country endured tumultuous experiments with presidential-style government, which was usually a fig leaf for civilian or military authoritarianism. In the 1990s, a parliamentary form of government was re-established, and the pinnacle of power shifted from the president to the prime minister; but the political environment did not improve.
Since 1991, the position of prime minister has rotated between two high-ranking Muslim women, who inherited the mantle of leadership when a male relative was assassinated. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur, who was killed during a 1975 coup. Her rival, Zia, was the wife of Ziaur Rahman, a military dictator who met a similar fate in 1981.
Though there is little love lost between the two women, they differ little in terms of economic and social policies – or in the way that they run their parties: as a family business. Their governments curtailed civil, political, and human rights. Arbitrary arrests, unlawful killings, clampdowns on free speech, and abusive working conditions became increasingly prevalent. As checks and balances were eliminated, what emerged was a shrunken democracy in which an authoritarian prime minister assumed the autocratic presidency’s overweening power.
Both women’s parties have proved to be inept in governance and corrupt in administration. Bangladesh sits near the top of rankings of the world’s most corrupt countries. In 2012, international donors under the leadership of the World Bank, citing concerns about corruption, canceled a large loan to finance construction of the country’s longest bridge.
When in power, each party does its best to manipulate elections and exclude the other. The current crisis dates to June 2011, when Hasina amended the constitution to overturn the 15-year-old practice of allowing a neutral, interim administration to oversee the country’s parliamentary elections. Fearing vote-rigging, the BNP and its allies boycotted the 2014 general election. As a result, 154 of 300 seats were uncontested.
The government’s harassment of opposition leaders, capped by the banning of the BNP’s principal political ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, for its purported religious extremism, has done nothing to cool the fires. Zia has vowed that her party and its alliance will continue boycotting the ballot box until free and fair elections are held.
Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, the situation is unlikely to improve. If the government succeeds in crushing its opponents, the wounds will fester for years, if not decades. Even a compromise between the Awami League and the BNP would bring only temporary relief, unless it addressed the country’s yawning governance problems.
Achieving long-term political stability will require deep reforms of Bangladesh’s democratic institutions – an effort that cannot be undertaken without sincere collaboration between government and the opposition. The first step must be an agreement by both sides to engage in serious dialogue, before the current crisis spins into violent anarchy. Beyond that, unless the Awami League and the BNP begin to professionalize their organizations and stamp out corruption, economic and social progress is unlikely to be sustained.
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