Backward Looking

Hans Dembowski

Bangladesh’s elections were neither free nor fair on 30 December. The Awami League (AL) of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and its allies won 257 of 300 seats in parliament. Sheikh Hasina’s rule has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years. Part of the problem, however, is that the opposition alliance lacks credibility as well.
Bangladesh is an unusual country. On the one hand, important development indicators show that it has been making considerable progress. Infant mortality rates are comparatively low and have kept dropping in recent years, whereas the literacy rate is high and keeps rising. Economic growth has amounted to about six percent for many consecutive years.
On the other hand, Bangladesh deserves its reputation for corruption. Poverty is still widespread, and climate change is likely to make things worse in its low-lying delta landscape.
International human-rights organisations express vehement criticism of Sheikh Hasina, and so do Bangladeshi civil-rights campaigners. Her government clamped down on protests last year, journalists’ freedom of expression is restricted, and some opponents of the government have “disappeared”. International media report that the recent elections were manipulated.
Of course, Sheikh Hasina denies that governance is flawed in any way and claims that her government brought about the developmental success. The truth, however, is that her government did not block positive development, but it did not manage to guide it well either. Bangladesh has benefited from the fast expansion of garment production and other export industries, but with better infrastructure and less corruption, progress might have been even more impressive.
The Awami League will now be in power for a third consecutive term. It is responsible for the shortcomings. In 2013, moreover, the collapse of Rana Plaza, a factory building in the Dhaka agglomeration, happened on its watch, and it was only the worst of several industrial accidents. Obviously, business is not regulated well.
Sheikh Hasina is actually not a forward-looking politician. She keeps fighting the battles of the past. At the personal level, her attitude is easily explained. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Bangladesh’s independence leader, but was killed in a military coup in 1975. Her entire family, with the exception of herself and one sister, was assassinated too.
The country’s main opposition party, the BNP, was started by Ziaur Rahman, an army officer, who was promoted after the coup of 1975 and, in 1977, became president himself. He was murdered in yet another coup in 1981, and the party’s leader is now his widow Khaleda Zia. It is easy to see that the two women do not consider one another as mere political opponents but bitter enemies.
Khaleda was found guilty of corruption and is serving a prison sentence. She served as prime minister from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006. Her track record was certainly not better than Sheikh Hasina’s. Her party’s close cooperation with Islamist fundamentalists and people who supported the Pakistani military during the liberation war are irritating. Yes, the AL has become an oppressive political party that shows too little respect for democratic principles, but the BNP’s character is probably even more authoritarian.
--Development & Cooperation

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