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Shafi Md Mostofa

February 26th, 2024

Bangladesh: Turmoil and Transition in a Fragile Democracy

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Shafi Md Mostofa

February 26th, 2024

Bangladesh: Turmoil and Transition in a Fragile Democracy

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

As Bangladesh emerges as a growing economy, its political challenges are getting more complicated. The recent victory of the Awami League comes, once again, at the cost of wider electoral participation. Shafi Md Mostofa discusses the fragile trajectories of her democratic profile, and the increasing prominence of Islamist politics in the country.       

 

The recent electoral victory of the Bangladesh Awami League, securing a fourth consecutive term after a controversial election that sidelined the Opposition, underscores the nation’s complicated political landscape. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s continuing tenure has propelled her to become the longest-serving female head of government anywhere in the world. But this achievement is set against Bangladesh’s history of political turbulence and fragile democratic institutions that have provided fertile ground for the growth of Islamist politics.

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Bangladesh’s past is scarred by episodes of political violence and military interventions. The assassinations of two sitting presidents in 1975 (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and 1981 (Ziaur Rahman) along with tenures of prolonged military rule (spanning over 16 years) have left enduring scars on the nation’s democratic fabric. Although electoral democracy was reinstated in 1991, its foundations remain shaky, with power often consolidated through muscle rather than mandate. Consequently, violent street protests have become the primary means of pressuring the government to address the demands of the populace.

The weakness of democratic institutions has also allowed for the emergence of authoritarian tendencies within the government. The years 2013–17 witnessed over one thousand casualties of political violence, highlighting the precarity of civil liberties and the rule of law. Additionally, the alarming statistics of over 1,000 extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2009 underlines a worrying pattern of human rights abuses.

In essence, while the long reign of the Bangladesh Awami League under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina may symbolise stability to some, it also reflects the fragility of democratic governance and the spectre of one-party authoritarianism looming over the nation. Unresolved issues of political violence, human rights violations and the stifling of dissent pose significant challenges to Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations and its standing in the global community.

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After 53 years of independence, Bangladesh’s citizens are still facing an identity crisis, as the country oscillates between secularism and Islamism. Although born as a secular nation-state in 1971 with socialism, nationalism and democracy as its fundamental state principles, ‘secularism’ was replaced with ‘absolute faith and trust in Allah’ by Ziaur Rahman (1977–81) in 1978; a decade later, in 1988, the military dictator H. M. Ershad (1983–90) declared Islam as the state religion, reflecting the demands of the people.

Bangladesh’s politics is bifurcated along lines of Islamism vs secularism. A constant fight between these two forces is evident in Bangladesh’s politics and policies. The ruling Awami League has historically been a supporter and advocate of secularism based on ethnicity, language and cultural heritage;  the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia — the widow of the former military ruler Ziaur Rahman — has placed itself in-between Islamism and secularism.

Understanding the majoritarian feelings of Bangladesh, the Awami League has not adopted a clearly secular or Islamist profile in its policies. While, on the one hand, they amended the Constitution to restore secularism as a fundamental principle, they have also retained Islam as the state religion. This ambiguity suggests the strong presence of both forces in the country, and has been done keeping an eye on the different demands and expectations of the electorate.

The strong presence of the religious right was witnessed in 2013 when a Left-wing movement received support from the masses. The Projonmo/Shahbagh Movement was demanding capital punishment for war criminals of 1971. The government amended the Constitution, agreeing to their demands. But the movement also started demanding a ban on religion-based politics; it was then that a counter Islamist Movement emerged; the government had to stop the Shahbagh Movement and heed to Islamist demands.

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The Awami League came to power in 2009 with an absolute majority in Parliament, with support from some Left-wing parties, and therefore included some of their leaders in the first cabinet. These secular forces have now made Bangladesh a one-party authoritarian state. There has been alleged vote-rigging in elections, political marginalisation and strong-armed policies. In the general elections of 2014, 153 out of 300 constituencies remained uncontested due to the Opposition’s boycott of elections. The 2018 election was not free and fair either; it was alleged that votes were mostly cast the night before the election. The recent elections (January 2024) was once again boycotted by the Opposition. The ruling Awami League is accused of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and human rights violations.

The country’s economic growth has been one of the key factors to help the Awami League remain in power. They adopted the slogan kom gonotontro, beshi unnayan (lit., ‘less democracy, more development’)’. Unfortunately, Awami League’s economic growth has started showing a volte-face. With Forex reserves depleting steadily — from US$48 billion in September 2021 to US$20 billion in  January 2024 — alongside rising fuel and gas prices, the inflation rate has reached over 9 per cent, which has made middle class life expensive, and very difficult for many others with lower income and spending power. The discontent among the masses is evident in the BNP’s political rallies, which are attended by tens of thousands of people.

Islamist groups have also been somewhat marginalised. The Jamaat-e-Islami has already faced judicial trials for war crimes in 1971 which killed dozens of its leaders, including its leader and Secretary Motiur Rahman Nizami. Its members are also not allowed to take part in political assemblies. Hefazat-i-Islam Bangladesh, an alliance of many Islamist groups, has been struggling to function properly since their protest against the visit of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi to Bangladesh in 2021, which killed 10 people, after which some of their leaders were sent to prison.

But this marginalisation does not mean the end of Islamism. Their traditional bases (like madrasas) remain unaffected, and recruitment to their ranks continues. The strength of their presence was evident when the Jamaat-e-Islami took to the streets in July 2023 to demand the release of its ameer from jail. Hefazat has long been demanding the release of its leaders as well.

This ambiguous secularism of the government in Bangladesh is poised to embolden Islamist forces for several reasons. First, Islamist groups have maintained deep-rooted connections and extensive grassroots networks, providing them with a formidable organisational advantage. Second, the government’s inability to foster national cohesion through effective governance has exacerbated societal divisions, creating distinct factions: those aligned with the pro-Liberation War camp and those opposed to it. Third, persistent economic woes, widespread corruption and human rights violations have lent credence to the Islamists’ rallying cry of ‘Islam is the Solution’.

Cognisant of the perils of economic collapse, Bangladesh has taken cue from Sri Lanka’s fiscal challenges, implementing stringent measures like a significant reduction (at least 40 per cent) in imports. But an austerity-driven approach risks exacerbating hardships for the population, including job losses, increased poverty rates and heightened social unrest, exacerbating the very economic problems it seeks to mitigate and inadvertently bolstering support for Islamist agenda.

The burgeoning anti-India sentiment within Bangladesh poses another catalyst for the empowerment of Islamist forces. India’s longstanding support for the current government, coupled with her domestic anti-Muslim rhetoric, has fueled resentment among segments of Bangladeshis. The simmering discontent has manifested itself in a quiet but palpable movement boycotting Indian products and interests, galvanising anti-India sentiment and potentially uniting Islamist factions against perceived external interference.

Many would argue that the BNP would be the solution. While that may be partially correct considering their support from large sections of the population, the BNP has not been able to respond effectively to the authoritarian policies of the Awami League government. The BNP may need Islamists’ support to get the anti-government movement rolling, which will give the Islamists political prominence, and an upper hand in future government.

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In summary, the convergence of socio-economic challenges, political disillusionment and geo-political tensions has created a fertile environment for the ascendance of Islamist forces in Bangladesh, posing significant implications for the nation’s future political trajectory, and regional dynamics. The failure of secular forces is, in turn, empowering Islamist forces in the country, which will allow them to be incorporated into mainstream politics in the future.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy. 

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Md Arafat ul Alam, ‘Padma Bridge, Sunset View’, Mawa, 2022, Unsplash.

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About the author

Shafi Md Mostofa

Dr Shafi Md Mostofa, currently Charles Wallace Bangladesh Trust Visiting Fellow at the LSE South Asia Centre, is Associate Professor in the Department of World Religions and Culture, University of Dhaka. A theologian and security studies scholar with an interest in political Islam, his doctoral dissertation was on Islamic militancy in Bangladesh (2009–19). At LSE, Shafi is working on violent extremism and counter-measures in Bangladesh, focusing especially on the newly-formed 'Jama'atul Ansar fil Hindal Sharqiya' militant-extemist group.

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