Jon Scott was Canadian high commissioner to Bangladesh 1993-1996. John Richards is a professor in the Simon Fraser University public policy school and works extensively in Bangladesh.
When a ferry capsizes killing hundreds, or a cyclone comes ashore killing thousands in low-lying coastal regions of Bangladesh, Canadians notice. Otherwise, Bangladesh largely flies under Canadians’ radar. However, a country of 160 million is currently slipping into an authoritarian quagmire. It deserves our attention.
When Bangladesh seceded from West Pakistan in 1971, U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger held that the new nation was a “basket case” of no strategic interest. From 1975 to 2007, Bangladesh experienced multiple military coups. In 2008, sheik Hasina and her Awami League won reasonably fair elections, and expectations were high that, finally, the country would entrench democratic practices. That has not come to pass. The major opposition party boycotted the flawed 2014 elections, which the Awami League won by acclamation.
In December 2018, Bangladesh conducted another election. According to official results, the incumbent Awami League government won more than 80 per cent of the popular vote and 288 of 300 seats in the national Parliament. The main opposition party won seven seats. Pre-election professional polls suggested the Awami League would probably win in a fair vote, but the actual election was, as the New York Times editorialized, a “farcical vote.”
The government violated virtually all conventions of electoral fair play. It appointed a supine electoral commission. The police harassed opposition politicians and drove most opponents into exile or jail. The leader of the main opposition party remains imprisoned by the current government.
Following the election, the U.S. government expressed dismay: “We note with concern credible reports of harassment, intimidation and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition supporters to meet, hold rallies and campaign freely. We are also concerned that election day irregularities prevented some people from voting, which undermined faith in the electoral process.” Britain and the European Union issued similar statements.
Bangladesh has realized a decent development record since independence. It is now the world’s second-largest exporter of garments. It has achieved nearly 100-per-cent primary-school enrolment for both boys and girls, and lower under-5 mortality than either Pakistan or India. From the beginning of the century until 2016, Per-capita GDP has grown at an annual rate of nearly 6 per cent. Inequality is, however, acute: 60 per cent of the population lives below the World Bank poverty threshold of $3.20 per person per day.
Bangladesh has pioneered numerous world-class innovations: microcredit, oral rehydration in treatment of diarrhea, an effective set of cooperatives in managing rural electrical power and – of relevance to the present situation – a neutral caretaker government of technocrats who assume control of the government at times of election in order to assure free and fair elections.
The caretaker government was used successfully in 1996, 2001 and 2008. With good reason, each of the major parties distrusted the others’ willingness to conduct proper elections. Regrettably, the Awami League abolished caretaker government through a constitutional amendment in 2011.
The Awami League is now in a position of near-total control of the country’s destiny. Misconduct of the 2014 and 2018 elections has resulted in the eclipse of the political opposition. Sheik Hasina has even sought to restrict the outreach of Nobel Prize-winner and inventor of microcredit Muhammad Yunus.
What lies ahead? Probably more pressure from the Awami League on independent news outlets. There will probably be more oppression of opposition voices, misuse of parliamentary powers and possibly further unilateral amendments to the Constitution. On the assumption that absolute power corrupts absolutely, inevitably more corruption of the public services and society at large will ensue.
Canada’s interests are well-served when Bangladesh, one of our largest development partners, combines economic advances with social progress. Since both countries are members of the Commonwealth, Canada should support Commonwealth initiatives to strengthen independence of the judiciary and protect freedom of expression in the media and the academy.
Bangladeshis will sort themselves out, but the process will take time. There may be worrisome distractions, including renewed terrorist attacks and the possibility of a military takeover.
Canadians need to display understanding, concerted involvement and strategic support for strengthening institutions consistent with the ideal of a tolerant Islam and democracy affirmed in the Constitution of 1971.
We should heed the words of Manzoor Ahmed, emeritus director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, writing a few days after the election in the Dhaka Daily Star: “Sheikh Hasina’s legacy need not be that she was Prime Minister for four terms … it should be how strongly she lays the building blocks of a prosperous, inclusive and democratic Bangladesh.”
It is a hope that all Canadians should share.