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Awami League

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Bangladesh: End of Democracy

1 January 2019

It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.

Her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, could probably have won a fair election against the BNP, but even with Khaleda Zia in jail she took no chances and arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP only got seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.

After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)

Just another fake election, you might think, no better and no worse than the shambolic vote in the Democratic (or just Dreadful) Republic of Congo on the same day. The outcome in the DRC hasn’t been announced yet (half the voting machines were burned), but you may be sure that the government will win there too. So why should anybody care?

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world, with six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 a day. In six decades of independence, the country’s 88 million people have never seen a democratic transfer of power. They hold elections anyway – even China has ‘elections’ – but nobody expects them to change things. Bangladesh is a very different place.

When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people – and there were too many of them. There are even more of them now – 167 million –but the pessimists were wrong.

Bangladesh works. It is still a very poor and very corrupt country, but its economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% for the past ten years and is now at almost 8%, second highest in the world. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and steady, and it has its population growth under control.

The region now called Pakistan and the region now called Bangladesh had exactly the same population when they were part of the same country. Today’s Bangladesh has 167 million, while the Pakistan of today has 202 million. Bangladesh’s population will stop growing at about 200 million in 2050; Pakistan will have 300 million people in 2050 and still be growing fast.

Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years. And who has been the prime minister for the past ten years? Sheikh Hasina, that’s who.

She may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and brought charges against tens of thousands of BNP party members. She may have rigged the election. But the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The ‘battling begums’, as the Bangladeshi press calls them (‘begum’ is a title used to refer to a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.

The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, and they have been the most important politicians in the country ever since. They quickly became first rivals and then enemies, but they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.

Contrary to previous practice, she declared that it would be her government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the election would be rigged by the Awami League government, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.

This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina sent her to jail, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.

So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.

Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state in which somewhere around half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“Just…place”; and “The region…fast”)

Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

8 January 2014

Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Sunday they held an election in Bangladesh, and nobody came. Well, practically nobody: turn-out was down from 70 percent in the last election to only 20 percent. Some of the absentees stayed away on principle, but others were just frightened away by the violence: more than a hundred polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months. The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.

It wasn’t actually former US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger who predicted that an independent Bangladesh would be “an international basket case.” It was American diplomat Ural Alexis Johnson, at a meeting in December, 1971, only days before Pakistani forces surrendered and Bangladesh won its independence. Kissinger merely observed that it would “not necessarily (be) our basket case.”

Nevertheless, it was attributed to Kissinger, and it became the defining prediction about Bangladesh’s future. Over the next two decades it seemed pretty accurate: it was a country where poverty was endemic, famine was an occasional visitor, political turbulence was permanent, and there were frequent military coups. But since the restoration of democracy in 1991, the narrative has been very different. Until now.

In the past 20 years the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate, and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975. Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as England (New York State, Malawi, Jordan). But now the narrative is changing again.

The problem is politics. Ever since the return of democracy in 1991 Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who utterly loathe each other. Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s “founding father,” Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 together with almost all his family by rebel army officers.

Her opponent of 20 years’ standing is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was then himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered Sheikh Hasina’s father, but the latter sees him as having come from the same stable.

The animosity between them can get very petty. For example, none of Khaleda Zia’s official documents list the date of her birth as 15 August, but that is when she chooses to celebrate her birthday. It is the date when Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, her mother, and all her brothers were massacred . The argument about whether it is really Khaleda’s birthday has been taken as far as the High Court.

Bangladesh might have moved on from its tragic early history much faster if both women had chosen other careers. Nevertheless, they have both shown enough respect for the law and the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in office ever since 1991.

Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis. The new BNP-dominated parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections – which the Awami League won.

But this time the whole thing has gone off the rails. Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the “neutral caretaker” system the following year. So when she announced an election on 5 January that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed that the election would be rigged and declared that it would boycott it.

The Islamist Jemaat-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s usual election ally, went even further and began to make violent attacks (mostly beatings and fire-bombs) against both Awami League rallies and election officials. As the death toll mounted, the army and police started shooting at violent protesters, and it went up even faster.

In the end, the Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate, and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. But it has no democratic credibility at all. (The European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States all refused to send observers to monitor the polls.)

This outcome is all the more surprising because 17 years ago Sheikh Hasina was standing in precisely the shoes Halida Zia is wearing now. Then it was the BNP that rigged the election and the Awami League that staged the boycott. Hasina must have known that her rival would respond exactly the same way this time, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the “neutral caretaker” to supervise a rerun of the election.

She knew that, and yet she did it anyway. Which means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 7. (“It wasn’t…now”; and “The animosity…Court”)