The World Should Be Watching Bangladesh’s Election Debacle
The ruling party is making a mockery of the electoral process, pandering to Islamic extremists, and turning the country into an authoritarian state
On Dec. 30, 2018, Bangladesh held its 11th national election since becoming independent in 1971. The questionable results ended in a sweeping victory for the ruling Awami League party of Sheikh Hasina. The party’s coalition secured 288 out of a possible 300 seats in Parliament, ostensibly winning more than 90 percent of the popular vote. The coalition of the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, won a mere seven seats. The results ensured a third term in office for the Awami League. However, almost immediately after the results were announced, a host of foreign and domestic analysts pointed out that the election was far from free or fair. Their misgivings were warranted. At least 17 people were killed in election-related violence, many others were injured, and there were widespread allegations of voter intimidation.
The Awami League has, of course, dismissed the charges of electoral malfeasance and instead suggested that the opposition is solely to blame for its anemic performance. Hasina’s government argued that it received such a sweeping mandate because it had delivered steady economic growth during its two terms in office. Furthermore, party stalwarts accused the opposition of precipitating electoral violence.
The rollback of democracy in Bangladesh matters. Although it is dwarfed by neighboring India, Bangladesh is the eighth-largest country in the world in terms of population. It is also a predominantly Islamic country and the home of close to 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Founded as a secular republic in 1971, it has become increasingly religious in large measure thanks to the pandering on the part of both military and civilian regimes to religious zealots in efforts to court segments of the population.
Despite a formal Supreme Court judgment in 2010 that restored secularism as one of the key tenets of the country’s constitution, Islam was nevertheless kept as the only official state religion. (This restoration was needed because under the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Mohammed Ershad, the secular features of Bangladesh’s Constitution had been significantly eroded.)
Over the course of the past decade or so, the country has seen the genesis of a number of radical Islamist organizations including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, and the Shahadat-e-al-Hikma. In part, they can be traced to a particular strain of Islamic zealotry that has existed within the country’s political culture since independence. Some elements of Bangladesh’s population had been averse to the country’s separation from Pakistan on religious grounds. They had remained deeply disaffected with the political mainstream and the country’s adoption of a secular constitution. Subsequently, the trial and execution of some collaborators with the Pakistan Army during the 1971 crisis also animated these religious zealots.
The rise of these groups can also be attributed to the infusion of both funds and ideas from Saudi Arabia, which has led to the emergence of more radical clerics and the growth of madrasas and mosques. Furthermore, the return of expatriate workers from the Persian Gulf region has to some extent infused Bangladeshi society with a more austere vision of Islam. Finally, as elsewhere, they have also stemmed from the frustration with the corruption and chicanery that has characterized nominally secular regimes in Bangladesh and a belief that Islamist parties may prove to be less venal.
Some of these entities have been formally banned, but they have nevertheless managed to wreak havoc on minorities, atheists, political dissenters, and especially the country’s dwindling Hindu population. In 2016, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was implicated in a major terrorist attack at a bakery in the capital, Dhaka. Despite the threat that these Islamist groups pose for the security and stability of the country the ruling party, for reasons of political expediency the party has failed to fashion a concerted strategy to curb the rise of such religious militancy; it prefers to court religious voters.
Hasina’s government has also shown scant interest in protecting those who incur the wrath of the Islamists. In the past several years, Islamist zealots have either attacked or killed a number of secular activists and bloggers. In 2016, two gay rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Majumdar, were murdered in their apartment in Dhaka. Earlier, in February 2015, the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka, and his wife was severely injured in the same attack. These incidents were, by no means, confined to the capital city. In Sylhet in 2015, another secular blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was murdered. None of the killers has been arrested or tried.
Worse still, even before the closing weeks of the campaign, when the harassment of the opposition was at its peak, other developments demonstrated the government’s lurch toward authoritarianism. As early as February 2018, the regime had jailed Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition BNP, on charges of embezzlement. With her removed from the political arena, the BNP found itself at a significant disadvantage as the election approached. To compound matters, the party as well as an agglomeration of other opposition parties with which it was loosely aligned, the Jatiya Oikya Front, were unable to hold a number of political rallies, as they could not obtain the requisite permissions from the government.
Finally, according to both opposition sources and civil society activists, even the Election Commission was compromised. Public disagreements about the fairness of the election emerged between the chief election commissioner and his underlings. They had disagreed about the use of electronic voting machines, had boycotted some meetings of the commission, and had submitted notes of dissent on various occasions.
The regime’s hostility toward the opposition was not the only marker of its disregard for democratic procedures. Well before the elections it had demonstrated an appetite for squelching public dissent. The most striking example was its decision to incarcerate a well-known photographer and political activist, Shahidul Alam, for his support of students who had been protesting the deaths of pedestrians by speeding buses in Dhaka.
Alam was arrested under the draconian terms of the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2013. The act allows for the elimination of arrest warrants, the restricted use of bail, and increased prison terms for those convicted under its provisions. He was finally released on bail in November 2018 after languishing in prison for over 100 days. Even though he was granted bail, largely because of a protracted international outcry, he still faces the prospect of 14 years in jail if convicted.
The Awami League’s questionable electoral victory is bad news for Bangladesh, where it will aid the consolidation of an authoritarian political order with a democratic facade. But it will have consequences for the region and beyond. It will provide comfort to other authoritarian populists who believe that curtailing democratic freedoms in exchange for economic growth constitutes a viable model of governance. Furthermore, it represents a step back for the prospects of democracy in the Islamic world.
China and India are unlikely to help restore democratic norms. As long as Beijing can continue to expand its diplomatic and economic footprint within the country, it will raise no uncomfortable questions about Bangladesh’s internal political arrangements. After all, it has no interest whatsoever in bolstering democratic development. Finally, a push toward authoritarianism will meet little resistance from the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. Modi, who is, at best, a reluctant democrat, has studiously avoided any criticism of the electoral process. On the contrary, he was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Hasina on her victory. His principal interests in Bangladesh lie in containing the expansion of Chinese influence and obtaining some minimal cooperation in stemming the growth of Islamic radicalism.
Finally, the Trump administration, to the extent it has devoted any attention to South Asia, has mostly been preoccupied with the future of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It has paid little attention to political developments in Bangladesh or elsewhere in the region. Consequently, it seems highly unlikely that Washington will expend much energy, let alone political capital, to address the shortfalls of this election.
At a time when democracy across much of the world is under siege or in disarray, the Bangladeshi government’s ability to get away with a profoundly compromised election has disturbing ramifications for the region. It adds to the growing roster of states in South Asia, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and even India, where democracy is—to varying degrees—under duress. Worse still, the drift toward authoritarianism may actually lead to greater political instability within Bangladesh as legitimate channels of dissent will become increasingly blocked.