The democracy project in Bangladesh

The Awami League government’s success in turning around the economy and health care must not be overlooked

June 02, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Bangladesh, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Uganda are the “new” autocracies, according to Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation. In its “Transformation Index 2018 (BTI)”, it has rated 58 out of 129 developing nations as autocracies.

On Bangladesh, the report says, “Due to the worsened quality of elections, the formerly fifth largest democracy is classified as an autocracy again. These developments are worrying for citizens because corruption, social exclusion and barriers to fair economic competition continue to be more prevalent in autocracies.” The BTI has, since 2006, been measuring quality of democracy, market economy and governance in 129 developing and transformation countries. Expectedly, in Bangladesh, while the ruling Awami League Party has rejected the study as baseless and claimed the country to be a “100 percent democracy”, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has said the report reflects the true nature of Bangladesh’s current political climate.

A project manager for the BTI at the Bertelsmann Foundation claims the report is balanced as it has flagged “positive developments” in the economic realm in terms of economic output, macroeconomic stability, market-based competition and private enterprise and also “negative developments” in the political realm such as free and fair elections, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

A long journey

Since the restoration of democracy after the fall of the H.M. Ershad-led military junta in 1990, Bangladesh has witnessed a change of government every five years. The polls were held under a neutral caretaker administration until the Awami League came to power in December 2008 and scrapped the system using its decisive majority in Parliament.

This was necessary because the military-backed caretaker administration put in place earlier had overshot its brief and instead of holding an immediate poll, ruled Bangladesh for two years without any mandate. It was a murder of democracy. The military-backed caretaker also tried to finish the political career of Bangladesh’s two top politicians, Sheikh Hasina ( picture ) and Khaleda Zia, with a ‘minus two agenda’, as if the conflict in Bangladesh was about a personal ego clash between the two women. Not only did the Western media and civil society underplay the element of ideological conflict between two warring visions of Bangladesh (a secular, democratic vision driven by the mantra of economic growth versus a replica of Pakistan’s religion-driven politics) but it also pandered to a military-driven propaganda that Bangladesh had better prospects if led by a cabal of technocrats, micro- and macro-bankers, military generals and intelligence chiefs.

Awami rule

The last eight years of Awami League rule have proved these self-proclaimed pundits wrong. Bangladesh has achieved phenomenal economic growth and inclusive social and human development in areas such as gender empowerment and public health care. But the West, especially the U.S., has sought to punish Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for not allowing a free run to the ambitions of Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus. The BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, had boycotted the 2014 election to protest the absence of a caretaker administration; in any case the campaign of violence unleashed during the BNP’s reign in the early 2000s cannot be forgotten. It is odd that this systematic lethal campaign directed against the Awami League, a party that had led the country to freedom, did not amount to a murder of democracy for the West, but when BNP-Jamaat leaders are jailed for leading and instigating violence, the West has cried ‘murder of democracy’. A top U.S. counter-terrorism expert has been profuse in his praise of Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism effort that has largely contained the spiral of Islamist radicalism post-2014 when a murderous campaign targeting secular bloggers, writers, publishers and even folk singers threatened the very soul of a secular, syncretic Bangladesh.

India has a huge stake in having a friendly regime in Dhaka for strategic and economic reasons. Our democracies in Asia have many limitations but there is no reason to let the West use that to misrepresent or subvert these national sovereignties.

Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC bureau chief for East and Northeast India, is editorial consultant with Myanmar’s Mizzima Media. He has worked as senior editor for bdnews24. com

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