February 6, 2014 | Commentary on Bangladesh, Economy, Democracy and Human Rights

Bangladesh election backlash threatens economic progress

International attention has turned to Bangladesh after post-election turmoil threatens to destabilise and jeopardise democracy in this pivotal Muslim country, writes Lisa Curtis.

Bangladesh held national elections on January 5, 2014, that were marked by lack of participation by the main opposition party and its allies, violent clashes among rival supporters, and abysmally low voter turnout.

And without a credible mandate to remain in power, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League will face continuing protests from the main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Street violence will lead to greater political instability and potentially slow the economy which had recently begun to gain momentum.

The banning of the Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), from the electoral process could drive the group and other Islamists to turn to violence.

Bangladesh is the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. It held regular elections for the last 20 years, except in 2007, when the military took power for nearly two years following escalating political violence and the failure of the major political parties to agree on modalities for holding elections.

A similar scenario developed in 2013 when the Sheikh Hasina government refused to step down in favour of a neutral caretaker government during the election period.

Rather than negotiating a solution with the centre-right BNP to end the political deadlock, Prime Minister Hasina moved forward with the election without opposition participation.

Half of the parliamentary seats went uncontested and turnout was around 30 – 35 per cent, significantly below the 86 per cent turnout at the 2008 election. The centre-left Awami League won 232 out of 300 parliamentary seats.

The current political crisis goes back to June 2011 when the Awami League government amended the constitution to allow it to remain in power during elections.

Adding to the political instability, the Bangladeshi courts announced at the end of January 2014 that the head of JI, Motiur Rahman Nizami, along with 13 others, will face the death penalty for smuggling arms to an Indian separatist group. Mr Nizami was Industry Minister in 2004 when the smuggled arms haul was discovered.

On December 12, 2013, the government executed senior JI leader Abdul Qader Mollah, provoking rioting among Islamists that led to five deaths in a 24-hour period.

The political volatility is likely to hamper Bangladesh’s economic outlook. Before the 2014 election, the opposition enforced a transportation blockade that led to violence and economic hardship for average Bangladeshis.

* Dairy farmers were hampered from getting their milk to processing and packaging plants in Dhaka, and staple food items like milk, butter, and vegetables became scarce in the capital.

* The garment industry – which accounts for over 75 per cent of the country’s exports – had difficulty meeting delivery schedules to international buyers. Nearly 150 people were killed in violence related to the transport blockade since October 2013.

Bangladesh has made notable social and economic gains over the last decade. Life expectancy has increased by ten years, infant mortality has decreased by nearly two-thirds, female literacy has doubled, and economic growth has averaged around five per cent annually. Continued political violence and unrest will almost certainly slow Bangladesh’s economic momentum.

But if violence surges and/or the economy takes a considerable dive because of the instability, the army may feel it has no choice other than to take charge, albeit on a temporary basis.

The intense pressure Prime Minister Hasina is putting on the JI is likely to backfire.

Islamist groups throughout the country could start to view themselves as under mortal threat from the government and decide to band together around a violent agenda. With their backs increasingly up against the wall and with no opportunity to play a role within the political process, they may calculate they have little to lose by attacking the government.

There will be little enthusiasm in the US for maintaining robust aid programmes to Bangladesh when democracy is being thwarted by the current regime. Until the democratic process is restored, US aid to Bangladesh will be at risk.

It is likely that 2014 will bring increased international attention to Bangladesh – not for its recent economic gains – but because its democratic shortcomings threaten to derail social and economic progress made over the last several years.

 - Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in World Review