Bangladesh: When Democracy Goes Bad

19 July 2007

Bangladesh: When Democracy Goes Bad

By Gwynne Dyer

“We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive,” Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the chief of the Bangladesh army, told a conference in Dhaka in April. Typical talk from a soldier who has thrust the civilian political leaders of his country aside — but he does have a point, for the leaders in question are a pair of obsessives whose rivalry has poisoned Bangladesh’s politics for decades.

Two political dynasties, alternating in power, have ruled Bangladesh ever since 1991. Among the larger democracies, only in the United States have two families, the Bushes and the Clintons, monopolised executive power for a longer time. But whereas the Bush-Clinton rivalry still continues — if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency next year and goes on to win a second term in 2012, the two American families will have been alternating in power for 28 years — the Bangladeshi rivalry is coming to an end. So, unfortunately, is democracy in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s democracy was never much to write home about. It won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but there were twenty years of tyranny and military rule before the first genuinely democratic government was elected in 1991. This change had domestic roots, of course, but it was also part of the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that began in the Philippines in 1986 and swept through Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.

Two steps forward, one step back. Thailand’s democracy has now given way to military rule, and democracy in the Philippines isn’t looking too healthy either. But nothing compares with the fall from grace of Bangladesh, which is usually ranked among the five most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. The credit for the disaster goes largely to the two women who have alternated in power there for the past sixteen years.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister from 1996 to 2001, is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the “Father of Bangladesh,” a former student agitator who led the movement for separation from Pakistan and then became the first leader of independent Bangladesh. He was an instinctive autocrat without a single democratic bone in his body, and he died in 1975 in a bloody coup by junior army officers that also killed his wife and all of his children except Hasina and one other daughter who were abroad at the time. So Hasina has a chip on her shoulder.

Khaleda Zia, her bitterest rival, is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, the army officer who succeeded Mujib after a chaotic interval. He reversed most of Mujib’s policies, including socialism and a strictly secular state — and then Zia also died in a hail of bullets in another military coup in 1981. So Khaleda also has a chip on her shoulder. She became Zia’s political heir, and prime minister from 1991-96 and again from 2001-06. Corruption flourished even more vigorously under her rule than under that of Sheikh Hasina.

Neither woman chose politics as a profession; both were driven into it by family tragedy. Neither woman is a monster: each would probably offer up her own life if it would guarantee a safe and prosperous future for her 150 million fellow-countrymen and women. But each loathes the other, and would rather die than compromise or cooperate. Too many of their supporters have the same attitude.

The view of General Ahmed, who has effectively been running the country since elections were cancelled in January, is essentially that democracy is to blame. Sheikh Hasina, out of power, declared a boycott of this year’s elections because she believed that the incumbent, Khaleda Zia, was going to rig them. In those circumstances, the election result would be meaningless, so the army intervened. And the general just doesn’t think democracy is right for Bangladesh.

But if it isn’t right for Bengalis, one of the most politicised, argumentative populations on the planet, then just who is it right for? Democracy in Bangladesh has gone horribly wrong because of the bitter heritage from the war of independence — which, like most such struggles, was partly a civil war — but the solution is to fix it, not to cancel it.

At the moment, General Ahmed is arresting hundreds of prominent political figures on corruption charges. Doubtless many of them are guilty, for that is how politics has been played in Bangladesh for decades. If they are found guilty by properly constituted courts and banned from further participation in politics, no great harm will be done.

If Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia themselves were among those excluded from politics on the grounds that they engaged in corrupt practices, that would not be a bad thing, either. But politics — DEMOCRATIC politics — needs to continue. It also needs to continue (or rather, resume) in Thailand, and Pakistan, and all the other places where the voters were “deceived by the politicians,” or “made the wrong choices,” or whatever other formula the saviours in uniform use when they grab power for themselves.

People get things wrong. Politics is a messy business. As Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But he also said: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except all the others that have been tried from time to time.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. “Two…Bangladesh”; and “Neither…attitude”