Bangladesh’s Sheikhen Democracy

As the Bangladesh poll date nears, hopes for a free and fair election and a truly democratic future come under question in Bangladesh.

Background

Bangladesh legislature is carried out in one house or chamber. The unicameral Jatiyo Sangshad, meaning national parliament, has 350 members of which 300 members are directly elected through a national election for a five-year term in single-seat constituencies while 50 memberships are reserved for the women who are selected by the ruling party or coalition. The Prime Minister is the head of the government. The president who is the head of the state is elected by the National Parliament. The president of Bangladesh is a ceremonial post and he/she does not exercise any control over the running of the state.

Bangladesh has an unofficial two-party system which has evolved over time since the election of 1991. It means that there are two dominant political parties or coalitions, with extreme difficulty for anybody to achieve electoral success under the banner of any other party in terms is a single majority.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Party, the Awami League, swept back into power in 2014, in an election boycotted by the opposition. Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the country's largest secular opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was put in house arrest during the 2014 election. She is currently in special jail serving 10 years imprisonment on "corruption" charges.

The country's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, lost its right to contest in national elections, while its central leadership, many of whom were languishing in jail during the last national election in 2014, have since been executed, defying international outcry.

More than 100 political activists have been killed in protests since, and dozens of opposition activists have allegedly been forcibly disappeared.

Analysis

Bangladesh's election commission announced that it has deferred the date for the country's next parliamentary poll from December 23 to December 30, partially meeting demands from several opposition parties, who recently agreed to contest the election, for more time to prepare.

The announcement came as various political parties were still demanding talks with the government to set up modalities that could ensure a free and fair election and left major politically contentious issues unsettled. Bangladesh's main opposition parties still demand the polls be deferred by a month, the current parliament dissolved, and an election-time special cabinet installed, one not led by current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Because of the deep-rooted mistrust among politicians and a vicious zero-sum political culture, Bangladesh had installed provisions for election-time caretaker governments under which four previous elections - 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2008 - were held. The constitutional provision for election-time caretaker governments was abolished during the tenure of Sheikh Hasina prior to the 2014 parliamentary elections, which the opposition boycotted, eventually handing out the ruling party 50 per cent of the parliamentary seats uncontested. Political observers soured on Bangladesh's democratic prospects since that election, some going as far as to term the entire 2014 affair as an electoral farce.

Bangladesh has become increasingly authoritarian under Sheikh Hasina, and in some aspects, it is now a de-facto one-party state, where the ruling party has usurped constitutional rights of its political opponents and citizens. Additionally, the politicisation of Bangladesh's banks has resulted in a liquidity crisis with an alarming increase in defaulted and non-performing loans. Total defaulted loans increased about 20 per cent from 2016 to 2017 alone. Experts are raising the alarm, comparing the current situation in Bangladesh to that of Indonesia prior to its banking crisis of 1997, which cost the country more than 50 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to fix.

Counterpoint

Hasina's strong rule brought relative political stability to Bangladesh, enabling it to make noticeable socioeconomic progress over the past 10 years. Bangladesh's per capita income was $1,355 as of 2016, 40 per cent higher than it was just three years prior. During the same time, South Asian giant India's per capita income went up by only 14 per cent and Pakistan's 21 per cent.

Hasina's political opponents, however, want everyone to look beyond economic figures and development indices.

Assessment

Our assessment is that it is hard to predict whether the people of Bangladesh would prefer a repressive government delivering economic indices in exchange for free speech, pluralistic democracy and an improved human rights record, as there are no credible polls in Bangladesh that measure the popularity of a government and its actions.

We believe that a truly free and fair election would be the best instrument capable of answering that question. In our opinion, if the status quo prevails and the next election is held under conditions similar to 2014, Sheikh Hasina may easily win a contiguous third term, allowing her to govern Bangladesh for more than 10 continuous years.