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The Downfall of Democracy in Bangladesh

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The Pulse

The Downfall of Democracy in Bangladesh

“Sheikh’s unprecedented moves since coming to power threaten to undo much of the country’s democratic progress.”

The Downfall of Democracy in Bangladesh
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Last month, Ripon Chakraborty, a Hindu mathematics teacher in the district of Madaripur, Bangladesh, heard a knock on his door. As he opened it, three men forced their way in and hacked him with knives repeatedly. He survived—barely.

Since 2013, Bangladesh has witnessed a spate of grisly Islamist attacks targeting LGBT activists, secular intellectuals, atheists, and religious minorities, with dozens killed. The grim tally has spiked in recent months, with five murders in April, four in May and three in June—not counting those like Chakraborty, who miraculously survived. Grisly as these attacks have been, and despite the fact that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for many of them, no formal investigation of the killings has taken place. Instead, over ten thousand arrests were recently carried out as part of a new mass “anti-militant drive.” This tepid response to the crisis highlights the worst kind of cynical politics: the attacks have been used by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the latest episode of her longstanding feud with opposition leader Khaleda Zia.

The two political leaders have been at each others’ throats for decades, in a political row that has escalated through countless squabbles and five electoral contests. But since gaining power in Bangladesh’s 2008 elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has decided to settle the feud by gravitating toward authoritarian rule. First, she dismantled the caretaker government system of elections, a pillar of Bangladesh’s democracy. Second, faced with the backlash that ensued, she took a series of increasingly authoritarian measures to silence her critics, ranging from attacks on popular media outlets to accusations of terrorism targeting the political opposition.

Until 2008, the rivalry between Sheikh’s Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) and Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took the form of imperfect—yet functional—democratic competition. Quasi-miraculous economic progress accompanied that democracy. Bangladesh’s economy quadrupled in size between 1991 and 2014. All this time, Bangladesh was walking on a democratic tightrope, which required careful political maneuvering. As part of the country’s return to democracy in 1991, the chief justice took the reigns of a caretaker government charged with organizing a free and fair election. In a poetic twist, Sheikh and Zia—the daughters of two independence heroes and ex-presidents—faced off at the helm of their fathers’ parties. Zia eked out a win by less than one percent of the popular vote.

The caretaker government of election oversight was formally set up in the lead up to the 1996 election as a way to prevent rigging by the ruling party, which would cede its power to the chief justice 90 days before an election to ensure an impartial contest. The system worked: power changed hands in both the 1996 and 2001 elections. In both contests, the caretaker government ensured that political foxes did not guard the electoral hen house.

However, when Bangladesh’s political parties failed to agree on a head for the caretaker government in 2006, President Iajuddin Ahmed (a BNP appointment) landed the job by default. Chaos ensued. Bangladesh’s democratic progress has required its elites to operate on specific key principles, and most importantly the idea that a neutral body should oversee elections. The technocratic government that took over power in 2006, following a state of emergency, shared that commitment to neutrality. It delivered Bangladesh a reasonably free and fair election less than two years later. Power changed hands for a third contest in a row.

The crucial commitment to neutrality died with Sheikh’s return to power. She decided that going forward, rather than attempting to play the established system to her advantage, she would dispose of it altogether. In 2011, her newly formed government unilaterally changed the constitution and abolished the caretaker government electoral system. In a declaration defying a key principle of democracy—that election bodies should remain apolitical—she stated: “We can’t allow unelected people to oversee national elections.” Unsurprisingly, she won the next election handily. Nearly all opposition parties boycotted the election; a majority of the parliament’s 300 seats were uncontested.

This assault on democracy also threatened Bangladesh’s economy. Shortly after Sheikh made her power grab, numerous hartals—general strikes—ground economic activity to a halt. In fact, more than 100 hartals have taken place in Bangladesh over the past five years, and their rate has nearly doubled since 2010. Worse, they have also become much more violent. The hartals that have taken place since 2010 have been almost four times deadlier than before. Hartals are so omnipresent in Bangladesh that the country’s largest English-language newspaper has a dedicated hartal section.

In a disturbing new development, Sheikh’s government has sunk as low as blaming the recent spate of lynchings on opposition politicians, rather than on the problem of fundamental Islam. In response to the grisly murder of an LGBT magazine editor on April 25, Sheikh alleged that opposition parties “are involved with these secret killings as they want to destabilize the government and the country.”

An investigation—a non-political investigation—is long overdue. Yet, according to South Asia researcher Abbas Faiz, “If there is an investigation that is not going to point [toward opposition politicians], the government will not allow that.” On June 13, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added his voice to those calling for an investigation of the attacks.

Rather than protecting members of the press and Bangladesh’s minorities, Sheikh’s government itself has undermined them. In a surreal form of victim blaming, after four atheist-leaning bloggers were hacked to death, the government’s reaction was not to denounce the attacks, but to call on bloggers to exercise self-censorship. Furthermore, last year, in a deliberate attack on independent media, the Bangladeshi army’s intelligence agency instructed major corporations operating in the country to stop advertising in its two largest independent newspapers. This type of reaction hurts freedom of speech in the country, a vital marker of democratic progress.

A significant shift in Bangladeshi politics—on both sides of the aisle—is needed. It is time for the country to move beyond the longstanding and counterproductive feud between Sheikh and Zia. Both leaders, while in power, have abused the country’s judicial and political systems for gains at the polls and to discredit one another. They have also orchestrated numerous hartals to advance their personal agendas.

Sheikh’s unprecedented moves since coming to power threaten to undo much of the country’s democratic progress. The international community needs to pressure her to stop battering the country’s hard-fought democratic gains through her cynical maneuvering and insist that she reinstate the caretaker government electoral system. She must also stop her onslaught on independent media. None of these efforts will prove a panacea; but at least they will make it harder to score political points when innocent Bangladeshis are being viciously attacked for what they say or believe.

David G. Landry is a Ph.D. student in international development at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where he researches the link between good governance and economic development. He worked with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 2011.