Bangladesh’s Quiet Slide Into Autocracy

In recent years, Bangladesh has periodically drawn global attention for its ostensibly strong economic growth, its humanitarian efforts in sheltering more than a million refugees from neighboring Myanmar, and its battle against Islamist militant groups connected to transnational terrorist organizations. It has been portrayed as a success story of both liberalization and globalization. The eighth most populous country in the world shook off military rule in the 1990s to become an electoral democracy. It successfully pulled 15 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2021 and has cut the overall poverty rate in half since 2000. Its manufacturing and textile sectors have flourished. Bangladesh has far surpassed its neighbor India in many key human development indicators, such as female employment and life expectancy. Located on the hinge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, it is also a country of increasing geopolitical significance.

But there are plenty of reasons to be wary of this bullish story. Economists have raised concerns about the actual rate of GDP growth, which may be lower than official figures suggest, and about growing disparities in the country as a result of development policies. Scrutiny of the country’s domestic political environment reveals a gloomier picture still. Bangladesh is creeping toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled for nearly 14 years. In 2021, the V-Dem Institute, a democracy research organization, categorized the country alongside Hungary, India, Turkey, the United States, and others as examples of democracies that were “autocratizing.” Some of the classic markers of authoritarianism are easily discernable in Bangladesh; power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of Hasina, and the legislature is dominated by the ruling party, which has also established a firm grip over the civil administration and law enforcement agencies.

Bangladesh’s democratic backsliding is precipitous. Already, the government wields increasingly unchecked power, the opposition is cowed and fragmented, the judiciary is grossly compromised, and civil society has withered. If the erosion of its democracy is not stopped, Bangladesh will become a de facto one-party authoritarian state. Unfortunately, few forces inside or outside the country seem willing or able to do anything to avert disaster.

After liberating itself from Pakistan in 1971, a coup in 1975 brought the military to power. The generals would effectively rule until 1990, when a popular uprising ousted Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the pro-Western general who had ruled the country since 1982. In the electoral campaign that followed, two parties emerged as the strongest: the centrist Bangladesh Awami League, helmed by Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president, and the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party under Khaleda Zia, the widow of another former president. When the vote was held, in 1991, the BNP won. Zia presided over a transition from a centralized presidential system to a more accountable parliamentary one.

So began an era of relatively healthy electoral democracy, characterized by regular free elections, few restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, a vibrant civil society, and an independent judiciary. Some important democratic institutions, however, remained weak, including the Election Commission, the Anticorruption Commission, and the Human Rights Commission. But elections provided a functional system of checks and balances, and popular participation in politics was at an all-time high.

The system was nimble enough to respond to major procedural disputes. In the lead-up to the 1996 parliamentary contest, Awami League partisans warned that an election managed by the BNP would be unfair, stirring protests across the country. The demonstrations worked: the parliament subsequently revised the constitution to institute a caretaker government, consisting of a nonpartisan cabinet headed by the country’s former chief justice, that would take over to oversee elections during the period between the dissolution of a parliament and the creation of a new one. This constitutional provision satisfied the rival parties and delivered two consecutive fair elections, in 1996 and 2001, in which power alternated between the BNP and the Awami League.

But then Bangladeshi democracy began to fray. Relations between the two major parties deteriorated, particularly after an assassination attempt on Hasina in 2004 orchestrated by an Islamist militant group with tacit support from within the BNP government—support that the BNP government made an awful effort to cover up. That year, the BNP also amended the constitution so that it could place a former chief justice sympathetic to the party at the head of the next caretaker government. The move sparked uproar and violence, a harsh government crackdown, and an immense political impasse that led to military rule under the guise of a civilian government between 2007 and 2008. International pressure and domestic unrest forced an election in 2008 that delivered a victory to the Awami League, giving Hasina her second stint in power. Many Bangladeshis hoped that the end of this short period of military rule would rejuvenate the country’s democratic prospects. But the opposite happened.