Bangladesh has taken yet another turn on its downwards spiral from democracy to authoritarianism. On 8 February 2018, a Bangladeshi judge convicted opposition leader Khaleda Zia — the nation’s former president — of corruption and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment. The decision sparked violence and protests in major cities across the country.
Read Senior Researcher Inge Amundsen's op-ed that was written for and published on East Asia Forum, 6 March 2018
While Bangladesh is formally a multi-party democracy, it cannot be considered free or democratic because of its poor human and political rights record. Freedom House ranks Bangladesh as ‘partly free’ and the Economist’s Democracy Index describes the country as a ‘hybrid regime’, between a ‘flawed democracy’ and an authoritarian state.
Bangladesh’s democratic decay began before 2014’s national elections. The ruling Awami League (AL) party sought to win the elections and stay in power by any means necessary. This included the abolition in 2011 of the caretaker government system (which had previously helped to facilitate free and fair elections), manipulation of the voting system and the deregistration of the largest Islamist party, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami — some of whose leaders were subsequently executed for crimes committed during the liberation war. The biggest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the election, citing opposition to the government’s abolition of the caretaker system. The 2014 elections were the most violent in the country’s history.
Since then, the ruling AL government has faced no challenge in the Bangladesh Parliament, and the state of Bangladesh’s democracy has gone even further downhill.
The government and security forces have clamped down on the media and civil society. In workplaces and in local communities, activists of the ruling party and its front organisations often inform the police and security forces about the whereabouts of their rivals. There is collusion between these activists and law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, these local AL ‘militants’ are operating without the knowledge or formal instruction of their superiors. Law enforcement agencies are also operating ‘informally’, in plain clothes and off duty, without orders, warrants or records.
The most notorious human rights violations are committed by the police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Border Guards Bangladesh. The RAB is an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh police. It has been accused by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other national and international human rights organisations of perpetrating more than a thousand extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and instances of torture.
Fictitious charges are also common against people deemed to be rivals of the AL. Trumped-up charges relating to corruption, publishing ‘false information’, pornography, instigating violence and vandalism are the most frequently used against political opponents. The courts are politicised, with many politically appointed prosecutors and judges, and making false accusations against rivals is a widely used political tool.
The perennial rivalry between the ruling AL and the opposition BNP is sometimes blamed on their two respective ‘Begums’ (female Muslim leaders) and their competing political dynasties. The AL leader, Sheikh Hasina, is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first president and ‘Father of the Nation’. Khaleda Zia, the BNP leader now convicted of corruption, was the wife of the late Ziaur Rahman, a general-turned-politician who ruled as president of Bangladesh for four years until his assassination in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s son and designated successor, Tarique Rahman, is wanted on money laundering charges and lives in exile.
Both dynasties have wide-ranging economic interests, and one’s political position and economic opportunity go hand in hand in Bangladesh’s nepotistic, clientelistic and crony capitalist system. The political dynasty is a mechanism through which the families can promote and protect their economic interests by using their political power to give family businesses access to government resources, contracts, licenses and favours. This makes the enmity between the two political dynasties more than a political struggle and instead a competition to exploit the political system for economic advantage.
The Bangladeshi government has targeted its opposition with a slew of measures that have clamped down on freedom and the rule of law. The ban of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and the execution of some of its leaders, the abolition of the caretaker government system in 2014, and the recent imprisonment of the BNP leader and the exile of her son have broken the back of the opposition in Bangladesh. They will have no chance of winning the 2018 general election.
Inge Amundsen wrote this op-ed for East Asia Forum, 6 March 2018 (a forum of Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University).
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