Exclusive Bangladesh: Is Democracy Good?

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, Update/Joe Cook)

This is the second in a series of articles concerning the political climate of Bangladesh. Some information has already been stated. Some of the information provided is exclusive, only to be found on the Update. This information was gathered via original research.


Bangladesh is currently in a political situation akin to an internal Cold War. The nation is divided between two political parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League. The heads of these two parties, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina respectively, have been in a back and forth power struggle ever since 1991, with either of these women being the head of the country since then with few exceptions.

These two women are remarkably unique, given they are the most powerful people in a country where, “there are a lot of people who believe that women shouldn’t be out on the streets”, so claims an anonymous source.

How did the nation become so divided?

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: ndtv.com

After the Bengali Liberation War, which saw Bangladesh become independent from Pakistan, President Sheikh Mujib of East Pakistan became Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib of Bangladesh. Mujib was faced with many problems starting his fledgling nation. Amid political agitation, he made Bangladesh a one-party state (with his party, Awami League, as the one party). A group of army majors, keen to establish a military dictatorship, launched a coup, assassinating Mujib and 19 other people, most of whom were his relatives. The leader of the coup came to power, but was quickly removed in a counter-coup. All conspirators were jailed, save one, Ziaur Rahman. Ziaur Rahman eventually became President, wherein he reinstituted free-market policies and a multi-party democracy (even founding his own party, the BNP). He was similarly assassinated shortly after as well.

ziaur, Wikipedia
Former Prime Minister and President, Ziaur Rahman. Photo: Wikipedia

The two heads of BNP and Awami are believed to have achieved their positions because of their relations to these two men (Mujib and Rahman). Sheikh Hasina is Mujib’s daughter, and Khaleda Zia is Rahman’s widow.

These parties are differentiated in their views on religion and economics. Awami League is the Secular socialist party, while BNP is more aligned with Islam and the free market. However, our source claims the tension between the parties is “not ideological at all. [BNP and Awami] don’t [really] differ on policy. In the US you have gun violence debates, immigration debates, abortion debates… [Bangladesh doesn’t have these]”

The source claims that the political parties tend to consist of members who have longstanding relations with the party leader- “they rarely do their homework and challenge [the leaders]. And eventually the party is shaped like this.” The source formed a pyramid with their hands.

The Awami League won the most recent national election in 2008 in a landslide after BNP boycotted the elections, claiming they would be rigged.

Irregularities in elections are something of a commonality in Bangladesh. Our source talked about the mayoral election in Dhaka, North City (The capital of Bangladesh) in particular, recalling how there were cases of “people who have died who… voted”, and friends claiming they tried to vote, but by the time they got to the voting station, they were told that “[someone] voted in [their] name”.

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BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Photo: indianexpress.com

Our source claimed that most of the votes were fair and legitimate, but there was a noticeable minority of suspicious votes.

After the election in 2008, BNP called for several ‘hartals’, or general strikes/protests. These were loud, and killed several people, but weren’t enough to move BNP members into seats in parliament (as of writing, BNP has 0 seats in the Bengali parliament).

jamaat supporters hartal, news.xinhuanet.com
Jamaat supporters during a hartal. Photo: news.xinhuanet.com

Our source, although not endorsing the tactics used by Awami or BNP, regards Sheikh Hasina as being the stronger of the two women in the current landscape. Referring to how the Awami League “bashed [BNP’s] knees in”, our source claimed that Hasina is much more “strategic [and] wise”.

“[BNP] try to play the pity card a lot. You’re not going to vote for a weak politician”

This is a common sentiment amongst Bangladeshis. An article in the Dhaka Tribune showed how most Bangladeshis (97%) thought the ideal government would be a democracy. However, 80% were also willing to accept dictatorship and around half were willing to be ruled by a military junta.

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Soldiers patrolling the streets in 2007, when Bangladesh was ruled by a military dictatorship. Photo: tribune.com.pk

Many in the West detest the idea of political dynasties and business moguls encroaching on governance. One need only look at the US elections, wherein the two leading candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) are attacked by people from both sides of the political spectrum for being a business mogul (Trump) or a member of a political dynasty (Clinton).

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Left to Right: Leading Republican candidate Donald J. Trump and leading Democrat candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton

However, the view is somewhat reversed in Bangladesh. In the same Dhaka Tribune article, a woman was asked what she looked for in a candidate, and replied “that he is rich”. Bangladeshis seem to hold the belief that it is better to be rich, well-connected and strong than willing, moral but weak.

“Voters want effective leaders, not leaders who look good in the eyes of some NGO” – Dhaka Tribune

Bangladeshis are realists. They want leaders with Machiavellian characteristics because they know there is corruption in their governance. They want a leader who, rather than moralizing about how this shouldn’t be the way, pushes through the weaklings to get their agenda performed.

This situation isn’t unique to Bangladesh either. The vast majority of South Asian and East Asian nations are either dictatorships or barely-democracies. For example, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has been in power for the last 25 years and has faced many accusations of fraudulent elections (the leading opposition party was literally created just to get Hun Sen out of power). Yet, leaders like Hun Sen are popular. Strong, immoral leaders stabilize regions and facilitate economic growth (Bangladesh’s annual growth rate is 6%, while it’s far more democratic neighbor, India, has an annual growth rate of 1.2%)

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Cambodian Prime Minister and former Khmer Rouge soldier, Hun Sen. Photo: asianews.it

That is not to say that the political strong-arming is without civilian consequences. Bangladesh recently banned Facebook and its messenger service, due to security concerns after a series of terrorist attacks by IS and al-Qaeda affiliates.

David Bergman, a prominent journalist in Bangladesh, writes that this move to ban Facebook was a way to tie the opposition’s (BNP) name to terrorism (due to Facebook being banned the day after the execution of two BNP members) and prevent private dissent through messenger services.

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An ad for Facebook services, which have just been banned. Photo: iamkarachiapp.com

Bangladesh may have a flawed democracy, ruled via corruption and pork-barreling, but the government also has an approval rating of 67%, quite high compared with occidental numbers which regularly stand in the 20% range. We in the West mock governments like these, but they function, just not in the inherently ‘democratic’ way. Bangladesh’s democracy may be fledgling, but its government is effective. Our source claims to have a dark view of Bangladesh’s future, but it might not be entirely because of the democracy. Bangladesh is faced with an even bigger problem, one which threatens the very existence of the modern nation, which will be discussed nest week in the third of this series of articles on Bangladesh.


Sources include David Bergman, Dhaka Tribune, The Guardian and a source who wished to remain anonymous

The information presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of The Update. We are reporting either the facts or opinions held by third parties related to the subject of the article.