Last Sunday, Bangladesh elected a new government. Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League were re-elected. Quite reasonably, three quarters of the electorate chose not to vote.
Many abstained because the election was a foregone conclusion. Candidates representing the Awami League won over half the ridings by acclamation. The BNP, the major opposition party, refused to participate because Sheikh Hasina had eliminated the "caretaker government", an arrangement that had previously assured a measure of neutrality in administering elections. Furthermore, Hasina had banned from participation the BNP's electoral ally, Jamaat-e-Islami. An Islamist party, it was banned in early 2013 on grounds that many of its leaders had, as young men, sided with the Pakistanis in the 1971 "war of liberation" that allowed Bangladesh to achieve independence and, in doing so, many had committed atrocities.
The BNP and Jamaat were not innocent victims however. All parties engage mastans, young men hired to organize and enforce hartals, violent general strikes that frequently paralyze urban life. Mastans of one party attack opponents' mastans and, on occasion, burn vehicles and attack bystanders. Mastans associated with the BNP and Jamaat physically prevented voters from reaching many polls.
Internationally, the best-known Bangladeshi is probably Md. Yunus, champion of microfinance and founder of Grameen Bank. He is well known for his humanitarian record and his dry wit. "We Bangladeshi have proved anarchism works," he insists. "Why? Because we have not had a government worthy of the name since 1971 but, nonetheless, we have made modest progress."
He is right. Despite a history of winner-take-all democracy punctuated by military coups, Bangladesh has made progress since achieving independence. Life expectancy, 46 in 1971, is now 69, four years higher than in either Pakistan or India. In 1971, Bangladesh had no garment sector. Despite abysmally negligent regulation that resulted in 1,100 deaths in a collapsed factory last year, Bangladesh is now the world's second largest exporter of ready-made garments.
Much of the country's progress in education and health is due to the presence of very large NGOs, such as Grameen and BRAC. They serve as a partial substitute for a political elite mired in violent political gamesmanship.
Maybe Bangladesh can continue for another four decades proving that anarchism works. But maybe not. I have visited Bangladesh for two decades to undertake modest social policy research. My e-mail address now appears on the distribution list of many Bangladeshi organizations, including a sample of Islamic groups.
Last November I received the following press release from Hizb ut-Tahrir, entitled "Democracy = Death to the People". Including the deaths arising from the collapsed garment factory, the release counted 2,800 deaths in 2013 attributable to mastans, police, and political corruption. The proposed solution: "The only way to free the people from the clutches of Awami-BNP politics is for the sincere military officers to overthrow the ruling regime and transfer the authority to sincere and aware politicians who will establish Islamic rule."
As a sympathetic observer of Bangladesh events, I think the count of politically related deaths in 2013 about right. As a typical Canadian, I find the proposed solution totally unacceptable. But … If I were a middle-class Bangladeshi having endured a lifetime of "anarchism", I almost certainly would be less convinced of the virtues of democracy. I might well be sympathetic to "Islamic rule."
Bangladesh is not alone among nominally democratic countries of South and Southeast Asia in being unable to generate a reasonably legitimate government able to govern reasonably well. The political culture of Bangladesh has obvious parallels in Pakistan. Nepal's civil war is now dormant, but its political institutions remain fragile. In northern India bordering on Bangladesh, the combination of political corruption and insurgent vigilantism is ominous. Thailand is in the throes of mass political protests, as is Cambodia.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a press release this week "expressing regrets that the major political parties in Bangladesh were unable to negotiate a solution that would have enabled a fully participatory election." Fair enough as post mortem. It would have been more useful had it been issued six months earlier and had he reminded Ms. Hasina of her obligation to conduct a fair election, and called on her opponents to use the instruments of a peaceful democracy.
The New York Times (6 Jan.) editorialized in the wake of the Bangladesh election on the theme, democracy in peril in Asia: "The lack of sufficient democratic checks and balances in [Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia] has undermined faith in elections and helped to create the conditions for civil unrest. Autocratic and corrupt political leaders have used government agencies, in some cases over decades, to serve themselves and their cronies."
We Canadians are far removed from these countries, but Western diplomacy, including our own, is relevant. We Canadians also have a duty to understand how political gamesmanship can worsen poverty. Bangladesh is not a "basket case" (as Henry Kissinger once described it) but it needs better political institutions if it is to escape the cycles of mistrust and violence of the last four decades.
John Richards teaches in SFU's public policy school. He also holds the Roger Phillips chair in social policy at the C.D. Howe Institute.