Democracy deficits in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is proving that the apple hasn’t fallen so far from the tree, after all. Its three-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been convicted ostensibly for embezzling some $250,000 from an orphanage set up to honour her late husband. She now faces five years’ imprisonment; while vehemently decrying the charges as being politically motivated.

For its part, the ruling Awami League (AL) contends that it was never part of the judicial process that was initiated a decade ago by the then army-backed interim government. Yet the main concern of Zia’s party — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — appears to be whether or not she will be able to contest general elections scheduled for the very end of this year, despite what the constitution might say. Zia’s supporters have taken to the streets in protest and inevitable clashes with police have occurred as well as the mandatory torching of motorbikes. Indeed, the apple now rests unbitten in the palm.

Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has preferred to call out the government over its brutal crackdown on dissent. And it is right to do so. After all, this is something that local rights group Ain O Salish Kendra says has been taking place in the run-up to the verdict being announced; with some 1,786 having been picked up in the last eight or nine days alone. HRW has also cautioned Dhaka that its claims to be open and democratic today ring hollow.

The current government of Bangladesh headed by Shaikh Hasina Wajid was elected into power through a controversial election that was boycotted by the opposition parties. There is a big question mark over the democratic legitimacy of this government. And the latter’s handling of the press has not been encouraging either. The ideal course of action for Wajid and her party should have been to strengthen the democratic process in the country. Instead, the vast crackdown on the opposition with many political workers in jail belies the basic tenets of democratic governance. It is ironic that Bangladesh left Pakistan due to the democratic deficits but even decades after independence bitter politics and autocratic mode of governance continues.

The thing to remember, however, is this: if Bangladesh has seen in the new year with such violence it will likely only become worse as the elections loom even nearer. We hope that the political elites in Bangladesh, especially the ruling party, would not let the country slide into further chaos. For it has done well on economic and social indicators but political instability can harm its long-term prospects. Sadly, like its other South Asian neighbours, the road ahead will be a long one.

It would not be out of place to mention what the sentencing judge said about Zia’s conviction: that she was receiving half the sentence that was meted out to her four co-accused due to her age as well as her “social status”. We, the South Asians, have quite a few bridges to cross.  *

Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2018.