Easy victory for the government in Bangladesh's election would still come at a steep cost

Few expect the opposition to succeed, but the country needs urgent reforms to avoid plunging into crisis

Police officers have been deployed in anticipation of large protests from supporters of the opposition alliance ahead of Bangladesh's election. EPA
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Bangladesh’s next general election is to be held on January 7. Although a formal victory by the incumbent government is widely regarded as a foregone conclusion, the fact that the integrity of the polls is already being viewed with considerable scepticism at home and abroad reduces the chances they will deliver the legitimacy or economic stability the government seeks.

Instead, both are likely to be degraded by the intensifying, multi-sided struggle to set the rules of how its political system operates going forward. That is bad news for Bangladeshis, but also its neighbours – especially India.

Bangladesh came into existence more than 50 years ago after seceding from Pakistan following a traumatic civil war in which India intervened, cautiously at first, then decisively.

A highly innovative, world-class NGO sector, working with communities, laid the foundation for sustainable growth while overcoming devastation from war and weather-driven natural disasters. More recently, Bangladesh has emerged as one of the world’s leading readymade garment producers, and this supercharged national growth over the past decade or so, at least until the Ukraine war’s economic impact pushed the economy into crisis.

Bangladesh’s recovery from the economic wounds of civil war sadly has not been matched by progress in the political sphere. The deep divisions that emerged during and after the brutal war of liberation have never been addressed through a process of dialogue or reconciliation. As a result, Bangladeshi politics has remained a zero-sum affair, with the threat of chaotic violence lying just below the surface of everyday normality.

The period from 1975 to 1990 was a series of often bloody coups and counter-coups between factions within Bangladesh’s military. Democratisation broke that cycle, and instead produced a regular alternation between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Unfortunately, the transfers of power were typically followed by legal harassment and suppression of the outgoing party.

Although both parties play up their ideological differences over the place of religion in national identity, they are both heirs to the armed movement to secede from Pakistan. Their bitter differences go beyond ideology, to a highly personal struggle between two political dynasties – and their hangers-on – who have both endured assassinations and imprisonment by their opponents.

The fact the integrity of the polls is already being viewed with scepticism reduces the chances they will deliver stability

The AL gained the upper hand in 2011 when it eliminated the constitutional requirement that elections be overseen by a neutral caretaker government. As a result, it has never lost an election since. The BNP and the combined opposition’s struggle go beyond winning the election in January, and instead are focused on forcing Sheikh Hasina’s government to reverse this change and restore the practice of caretaker-supervised polls.

Much of the BNP’s leadership has been arrested in recent months, but despite this, it appears to be widening and deepening its campaign. The BNP has announced a boycott of the elections and 13 other parties have made a similar pledge. Given the erosion of judicial and media independence over the past decade, and the security forces’ increased willingness to use force, the usual forms of protest simply do not work.

So instead of legal petitions and demonstrations, the opposition has instead organised a series of blockades of transport, especially around its major cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong. They appear to have significantly affected supply chains from the industrial level down to the vegetable markets, creating shortages and driving prices up. This suggests a high level of compliance, which in turn raises a major question mark over the level of public confidence that the government commands. The opposition alliance is now calling for an escalation to a larger programme of civil disobedience, including refusal to pay taxes and utility bills.

The past two elections were judged by international and domestic observers as flawed, and every indication is that January’s vote is likely to suffer from the same defects. As a result, the EU has declined to even deploy election monitors. Given these conditions, it is unlikely that the opposition campaign will end on January 7, regardless of the official election commission results. Instead, the opposition is likely to maintain pressure and bring international attention to the government’s policies.

The UN Human Rights Council, as well as the US and EU (two of Bangladesh’s largest export destinations), have already begun to express their alarm over alleged extrajudicial killings and abductions by shadowy pro-government elements.

Most consequentially of all, Bangladesh is in close consultation with the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to lend $4.7 billion to ease the crisis triggered by the Ukraine war. Any impact from unrest on fundamentals such as inflation, exports and investment would inevitably bring pressure from international lenders for a political settlement to restore international lenders’ confidence in the country’s future stability, which the opposition hopes would mean more space for their demands.

Part of the increased western attention towards Bangladesh stems from the increased engagement with the countries of the Indo-Pacific as relations between the West and China have deteriorated. Although the cornerstone of this effort has been the deepening strategic partnership between the US and India, the question of what to do about the current government has been a place of divergence rather than convergence.

Indian governments going back to Indira Gandhi in 1971 chose to largely invest in ties with the AL, even when it declared Bangladesh a one-party state in 1975. The administration of US President Joe Biden, on the other hand, is committed to encouraging a zone of shared political values in the Indo-Pacific. Regardless of these differences, however, both Washington and New Delhi share a strong mutual interest in stability and growth in the region.

There is a widespread public belief, which the IMF shares, that the inadequate management of state finances and the banking and energy sectors over the past decade was responsible for leaving a booming economy vulnerable to recent global shocks. The apparent lack of transparent and competitive politics appears to have played a part in producing the current level of dysfunction.

Without adequate governance reforms, Bangladesh’s economy could continue to falter, with possible regional spill-over. Large sections of the country’s enormous workforce, comprised of about 74 million people, faces displacement pressures from climate change. A number of them may start looking for alternatives, wherever they can find them, especially next door in India.

The international community, including India, has the leverage to encourage the reforms that will allow peaceful transfers of power in Bangladesh, and set up the country for sustained economic success that will benefit the region and the world.

Published: December 21, 2023, 2:00 PM