- Hasina Wajed’s Bangladesh is a blueprint for authoritative democracy
By: Ammad Malik
Bangladesh’s economy is projected to grow by 7.4% in 2019, according to the United Nations’ World Economic Situation and Prospects report. More impressively, the multinational Standard Chartered bank estimates that by 2030, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would surpass that of India’s. Dhaka’s economic miracle and its conscious calculated effort to invest in the health and education sectors presents a valuable lesson for other South Asian countries. However, Bangladesh’s economic success of late has been achieved under the iron rule of long serving Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid, whose government has faced severe criticism for systematically silencing and eliminating virtually all political opposition.
Khaleda Zia, a former three time Prime Minister and head of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is currently serving a prison sentence in Dhaka Central Jail. Similarly, other senior members of the BNP party have been booked on charges of corruption and treason. The Awami League’s crackdown against the country’s primary Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the subsequent sham trials and execution of the JI’s veteran leadership, has also resulted in condemnation by watchdog organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Moreover, Hasina Wajed’s government has a track record of interfering in the country’s judicial decision making and has often coerced judges into getting favourable verdicts. A prominent example in this regard is the case of former Chief Justice Surendra Kumar, who has detailed the circumstances behind his resignation in an explosive memoir titled A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights & Democracy. According to Kumar, he was forced to resign in November 2017 after the chief of Bangladesh’s notorious military intelligence threatened him of dire consequences, at the behest of the Awami League government.
Thus, Bangladesh’s “economic miracle” conceals more problematic developments in the country and sets a dangerous precedent for other South Asian countries, particular Pakistan. Dhaka’s swift reversal in fortunes under the authoritative Awami League can be interpreted by other struggling economies as a blueprint for success and in turn result in further weakening democratic norms and institutions in the region. Hasina Wajid’s dismantling of her political opposition may be a tempting prospect for leaders looking to consolidate power, but it also creates doubts on the impartiality of the judicial process and its capability to uphold the constitution
Bangladesh’s descent towards an authoritarian democracy has been a gradual but continuous process. The infamous 2014 general election was boycotted by the country’s largest opposition party, the BNP, which left more than half of all seats uncontested. Likewise, the 2018 general election was marred by allegations of massive rigging and expectedly resulted in another landslide victory for the Awami League. The sheer scale of electoral irregularities in the 2018 election can be gauged from the fact that an independent investigation conducted by Transparency International confirmed electoral fraud in 47 out of 50 sample constituencies. Despite the boom in Bangladesh’s economy, it is important to note that Hasina Wajid’s authoritarianism could in future impede the country’s economic progress. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argue in the engaging Why Nations Fail that quantitative data from an extensive pool of diverse countries indicates that democracy has a positive effect on economic growth in the long run.
Furthermore, state capacity in Bangladesh remains weak, which hinders the capability of state infrastructure to design and implement state policies. The politicization of the judiciary and its intimidation by the Awami League government is another worrying sign. A handicapped judiciary cannot hold the government accountable for its unconstitutional actions and excessive power accumulation. Censorship and harassment of journalists has also increased to alarming levels, with the country now ranking at a dismal 150th in the Press Freedom index. The Awami League’s economic policy, despite reducing poverty levels in the country, has contributed to increased income inequality. Bangladesh now ranks as the world’s foremost nation with the fastest growing number of multi-millionaires worth at least $30 million. Coupled with rife corruption in the public sector and the growing nexus between the business elite and the Awami League government, Bangladesh’s brand of “crony capitalism” has led to monopolization in the market and undermined accountability mechanisms.
Although it might appear that Bangladesh has transitioned permanently to a one-party authoritative democracy, the National Front’s stunning defeat in the 2018 Malaysian elections suggests that such regimes are in fact vulnerable. The National Front party, which had a chokehold on Malaysian politics from 1957 to 2018, has a few uncanny similarities with the Awami League. Both parties rely on extensive patronage networks and exploit racial and identity issues to secure votes. Whereas the National Front emphasizes traditional Islamic values, the Awami League’s zealous propagation of secularism is an attempt to forge a distinct “Bangladeshi” identity and win over support from the country’s significant Hindu population. It can also be argued that modern Bangladesh is actually a “hybrid regime”, one that combines both democratic and authoritarian characteristics. Such a regime type gained traction in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and was argued by numerous scholars to represent a stable government model. Recent data however suggests that the opposite is true. Christopher Carothers’ research on hybrid regimes titled “The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism” argues that instability is the norm amongst the majority of the 35 cases examined. More often than not, hybrid regime types either give way to new autocracies or become fully democratized.
Thus, Bangladesh’s “economic miracle” conceals more problematic developments in the country and sets a dangerous precedent for other South Asian countries, particular Pakistan. Dhaka’s swift reversal in fortunes under the authoritative Awami League can be interpreted by other struggling economies as a blueprint for success and in turn result in further weakening democratic norms and institutions in the region. Hasina Wajid’s dismantling of her political opposition may be a tempting prospect for leaders looking to consolidate power, but it also creates doubts on the impartiality of the judicial process and its capability to uphold the constitution. Finally, as noted earlier, a sustained and continuous democratic government is closely linked to economic growth and attempts at single party hegemonic quasi-democratic systems eventually backfire.
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