Bangladesh transforms despite its vicious politics

Authors: Tom Felix Joehnk and Forrest Cookson

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.

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)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Since 2009 the traditional five-year rotation of political power between the two big parties has been replaced by open-ended majoritarianism.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.

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