Bangladesh's fraying democracy

Liz Philipson
25 June 2006

Bangladesh is increasingly torn: between economic progress and insecurity, law and impunity, Islamism and secular politics, violence and democracy. Liz Philipson portrays a troubled country approaching its next major electoral test.

The people of Bangladesh will go to the polls in January 2007 to elect a government for the fourth time since military rule was overthrown in 1990. At each of these elections a strong anti-incumbency sentiment has resulted in a change of government, and thus the Awami League (AWL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have alternated in power.

But despite this strong record of formal democracy, Bangladeshi and international analysts are expressing strong concerns about the integrity of the election. Many fear that the result will be so marred by violence and/or corruption as to make it unacceptable; a minority even express fears that the situation in Bangladesh will deteriorate to the extent that holding an election will become impossible.

Politics, like much else in Bangladesh, has always been characterised by violence. After the bloody war of independence which in 1971 secured an independent state from rule by Pakistan, the nation's first two prime ministers – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman – were assassinated. Between 1974 and 1990 the country was governed largely under states of emergency or martial law.

The legacy of this painful history is apparent in the fact that the current leaders of the two main political parties – prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP], and wife of Ziaur Rahman, and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina of the Bangladesh Awami League [AWL], and daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – share a mutual animosity as well as a political rivalry, one that extends to a refusal to communicate with each other.

This is just one element of a political culture steeped in bitterness. There is little discourse or process in Bangladeshi politics. The Dhaka parliament is routinely boycotted by the opposition, so issues are fought out at street level through successive anti-government hartals (general strikes) called by the opposition.

Such hartals have become more frequent (and perhaps more violent) in recent years, but the pattern of the opposition eschewing dialogue in parliament in favour of confrontation on the streets pertains to whoever is in government.

Security vs economic progress

This uncertain political climate has not prevented Bangladesh from progressing a long way from the newborn, war-torn state of 1971. The country is even doing better than other countries in the region at achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations in 2000. The World Bank in Bangladesh states: "Bangladesh has made remarkable progress on several MDGs and is already on the verge of achieving the targets in gender parity. It also has a good chance of reaching other targets in areas such as under five mortality and consumption poverty."

At the same time, Bangladesh's enviable growth rate of around 5% for several years has resulted in increasing social inequality, visible both in Dhaka (where penniless beggars stand outside what is claimed to be the biggest shopping mall in Asia) and the countryside (where parts of northern Bangladesh are still subject to seasonal famines). This growth has not resulted in any increase in physical security for Bangladeshis; indeed it may have promoted increasing insecurity through a rise in criminality and impunity.

The service sector generates as much as half of Bangladesh's GDP, while two-thirds of the labour-force are still employed in the agricultural sector – where they have made the country self-sufficient in rice despite underinvestment. In this country of 140 million people, both agricultural and urban land is at a premium; disputes over possession and use are legion and are often resolved by force and intimidation rather than law.

Impunity vs the rule of law

Corruption is not so much endemic as systemic in Bangladesh, which regularly is at or near the top of the Transparency International corruption index. The phenomenon is directly linked to criminality, violence and impunity.

The social system in Bangladesh remains somewhat feudal, and social and business relations are based on patronage. These relationships have assisted organised crime to capture many aspects of the state and governance, law enforcement and justice. It also pervades business practice. Mastans – organised-crime syndicates – run "protection rackets" throughout society through a complex system of payment and collection. Even street beggars will be paying "protection".

Mastans have also developed relationships and linkages with high-level politicians, who benefit financially and offer political and judicial protection in return. Some mastans have become wholly or partly legitimate businesses; others have entered politics directly and each have their own coterie of goondas (enforcers or thugs). The lines between politics, business and organised crime are becoming increasingly blurred in Bangladesh. There are honest businessmen and politicians, but such people are often fairly isolated and powerless. In the prevailing atmosphere it is very difficult to remain totally unsullied by corruption and patronage.

The key element underpinning the success of the political-criminal nexus in Bangladesh is impunity. The godfather-mastan system enforces endemic corruption and protects those engaged in its organisation. Furthermore, protected mastans enjoy impunity from the police and the justice system for all their criminal acts, though in recent years this impunity has been threatened by other extra-judicial means.

In October 2002, when police claimed that ten people per day were being killed by crime syndicates with links to politicians, the government launched "Operation Clean Heart". This was a military operation in which over 11,000 people were arrested, of whom only 2,400 were tainted with allegations of criminality. The operation, which ended on 9 January 2003, is estimated to have cost forty-four deaths.

The government immediately passed an ordinance granting indemnity to all those military and officials who had been involved in "Operation Clean Heart". It also resisted the outcry from human-rights organisations and western governments at the illegal use of the army and the lack of due process involved. The operation was a popular success, and this encouraged the government to inaugurate a new paramilitary organisation – the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) – almost entirely composed of military personnel but which was to report to the interior minister. This "legalised" its operations.

The Rab killed numerous criminals in "crossfire", to the extent that "being taken to the crossfire" is entering the language in much the same way as "being disappeared" did in Latin America in the 1970s. Rab's popularity remained undiminished, as many Bangladeshi citizens feel that it is saving them from the criminals preying upon them. In fact, many Rab officers are veterans of UN peacekeeping missions and fully understand human-rights norms – but do not see these as applicable in the war against the mastans.

At present, Rab seems to be efficient, disciplined and relatively uncorrupted; but its actions offend every precept of due process and the rule of law and – even within some parts of the army itself – questions are being asked as to who will ultimately be able to control this proud, elite, force.

The issues of impunity and enforcement of the rule of law are vital in addressing many of the governance, security and business ills of Bangladesh. However, many of the people implicated in and benefiting from the existing system are the very ones responsible for protecting it. Clearly, a systemic and long-term approach is needed which harnesses the will of Bangladeshis for a better system.

Islamism vs secularism

The majority of the population of Bangladesh is Muslim. In contrast to other parts of south Asia, Bangladesh was converted to Islam by Sufis prior to its incorporation in the Mogul empire in the 1600s. The spiritual rather than clerical approach of the Sufis has resulted in a syncretic Bengali culture which, though Islamic by religion, celebrates singing and dancing from the Sufi tradition and incorporates many aspects of Hinduism into its cultural forms.

This traditional Sufi-based religion has been increasingly challenged by two stricter and more clerically-based currents: Deobandism from Pakistan-India, and Wahhabism from the middle east.

The challenges from the middle east have been strengthened by the investment of oil money in Bangladesh since the 1970s, including by Bangladeshis returning from working there. Increasing worldwide Islamic consciousness and geopolitical events have also played a part in introducing more these clerical trends. At least several hundred, and perhaps many more, Bangladeshis fought with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union many of these returned to Bangladesh after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

The growth of conservatism of Islam in Bangladesh is noticeable in the more conservative dress of many women and men and in the conspicuous pious acts in which political leaders of all parties increasingly engage. AWL is traditionally seen as the party of secularism whilst the BNP – though it removed secularism from the constitution – is perceived as more favourable to Islam. This is particularly the case at the moment as the current government is an alliance of the BNP, the Jatiya Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikka Jote – the latter two being Islamist.

International headlines have focused on the threat of violent extremism – particularly in the wake of the coordinated bombing-wave in August-December 2005 associated with Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). The campaign was heralded on 17 August by 459 almost simultaneous countrywide explosions of detonators in sixty-three districts across Bangladesh in which at least two persons were killed and 100 others sustained minor injuries.

For many months, the government continued to deny the existence of the JMB. Only international pressure forced it to take the threat seriously, and then to ban the group on 3 February 2006. Many of those arrested for the bombing campaign have now come to court, including three leaders who have been sentenced to death. During the investigations and court hearings, there were many reports of links between the accused and Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) as well as with JI itself.

In addition there were reports of links (some through kinship) with leading politicians in both the major parties. Some Bangladeshis believe that the JMB leadership did have "godfather" protection, particularly for their early activities in northern Bangladesh; it is interesting to note that JMB cadres and leaders were not "taken to the crossfire" by the Rab, apparently so they could be interrogated for intelligence purposes, and confessions extracted.

The activities of the security forces against JMB have convinced most Bangladeshis that the group has for the moment been broken; but few believe that it will not rise again in some form.

Before August 2005, there was much confusion about the extent of support that groups such as JMB might have. The public reaction to the exhibitions of violence was clear rejection. Indeed, JI's profile has suffered badly as a result of JMB's activities, as has that of its government partner, the BNP. This bodes well for countering any further threats of Islamist violence in Bangladesh. Yet the underlying threat that creeping Islamism might lay the foundation for an Islamic state appears to be one which the Bangladesh political parties are unwilling to address.

Democracy vs authoritiarianism

The formal democracy of Bangladesh has been gradually challenged and undermined by the impunity and failure of the rule of law inherent in the godfather-mastan system and the pervasiveness of the politics of patronage. Yet there have been three earlier elections, of which the first two were regarded as free and fair and the third as reflecting the will of the people, despite overt violence in some areas. The non-party "caretaker" government system which was first instituted in 1991, and which has since been held up as a model for other countries in democratic transition, has been a critical factor in this.

In many countries, outgoing governments act as caretakers during the election period but in Bangladesh (not only there, needless to say) the performance of post-independence (and particularly military) governments led to a general lack of confidence in any party led government having the capacity to undertake a free and fair election. The call for a non-party caretaker gained credence towards the end of the campaign to oust the military government of General Ershad (1982-90); as a result, a caretaker government was instituted with the chief justice of the supreme court acting as president.

There was no permanent arrangement but the failure of the February 1996 elections resulted in a permanent caretaker system being instituted. This system worked well in 1991 and 1996; in 2001 the BNP complained that biases had crept in but in the event the party's own victory silenced these. Now, in the approach to the 2007 election the system has become extremely contentious and polarising.

The AWL have even threatened to boycott the election over what it sees as BNP manipulation of the system, and with its allies has proposed a new "electoral reform agenda" which it demands the government discuss. Many commentators and activists believe that the government and opposition are on a collision course on this issue that can only end in violence.

Protest vs power

In fact, most voters appear to be totally disillusioned with the major parties and actively distrustful of the political leaders of all parties. The parties themselves have ignored the people's needs between elections, other than to use them instrumentally and negatively against each other. But a new trend has been emerging in the last few months which is both hopeful and worrying. People have spontaneously been making their own demands and by-passing the political parties. Price increases, energy problems, physical insecurity and corruption are the issues which are directly affecting the population and it is time that its voices were heard.

In particular, the high number of electricity cuts (and for many no electricity means no water) has caused huge frustration, resulting in spontaneous, large, well-publicised public protests in Kansat and Demra. The Bangladesh press estimated that over 1,000 had been injured at Kansat between January and April 2006 and the government was forced to apologise to people there. However, there is little that the government can do to improve the electricity situation in the short term. No political party has the credibility to give leadership to such protests, which can be expected to continue.

In late May 2006, the focus moved from people protesting about electricity to industrial disputes. Workers across the garment sectors rioted in what began as a dispute over dismissals in a single factory and quickly spread to engulf industrial areas; as many as fourteen factories were set alight in one day and many more damaged. This is another example of the extreme volatility of contemporary conditions in Bangladesh.

Elections and the future

A free and peaceful election in 2007 is a necessary though not sufficient condition to stabilise Bangladesh. Despite the widespread disillusionment with the political parties, most people believe that it is important that the election takes place and is conducted well. Donors are already cooperating with Bangladeshi organisations to ensure that there is a good distribution of trained monitors – both local and international. If the elections are not held and there is no mandate at all for governance, the possibilities – in the absence of an alternative, legitimate leadership – are all grim.

The elections, then, are very important for Bangladesh – even though they will change little, whoever wins. Bangladesh's problems are systemic and have come about through the lowering of people's expectations of government and political parties whilst the latter have slowly hollowed out the state. The AWL and the BNP are both complicit in this; both have allowed the godfather-mastan system to become so entrenched that it is now questionable if they can ever totally extricate themselves from it.

These problems need to be articulated in the public domain – a dangerous task as many Bangladeshi journalists know to their cost. Yet only when it happens will Bangladeshis themselves and donor governments begin to develop systematic responses to their country's governance problems; only then might the people of Bangladesh look forward to a more secure future.

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