IN MANY WAYS, Bangladesh is a role model for South Asia. Its economy grew by an average of 6.3% a year over the past decade. Last year it expanded by 7.3%—faster than India’s or Pakistan’s. Once the region’s poorest big country, its GDP per head is now higher than Pakistan’s, when measured at market exchange rates. Better yet, it boasts lower infant mortality, higher school enrolment and longer life expectancy than its peers. With 165m citizens, it is the world’s eighth-most-populous country. But its fertility rate is lower than that of the region’s other giants.
No one, however, would envy Bangladesh’s politics. They are characterised by an all-or-nothing, no-holds-barred aggression between two parties, the ruling Awami League and its main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Disputes are most commonly settled not in parliamentary debate or at the ballot box, but through paralysing hartals—strikes-cum-blockades enforced by partisan thugs. At the most recent election, in 2014, clashes claimed 18 lives on election day alone. More than 100 polling stations were set ablaze.
This week the Election Commission is expected to set a date for the next parliamentary vote, probably in late December. Things look calmer this time around. There have been no hartals; instead, the government has met with an alliance of opposition parties to discuss ways to improve the political climate. Even so, there is little hope the election will be fair (see article). The Awami League has spent its ten years in power systematically co-opting state institutions and hobbling the opposition. It has locked up hundreds of opposition activists, including Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP. Others have been executed, in the name of righting the wrongs of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious opposition party allied to the BNP, has been banned altogether.
The press has been cowed with a barrage of lawsuits. Critics of the government on social media are hounded. Unco-operative judges have landed in legal trouble. In 2011 the Awami League abolished the system whereby a neutral caretaker government presided over elections—one of the causes of the furious protests at the subsequent ballot. The fact that the opposition has been relatively quiet in the run-up to the coming vote is not a reflection of greater harmony, but of the government’s iron grip.
Pick your poison
Even if the opposition were to have a chance in the vote, it would be unlikely to govern better than the Awami League. The army was so appalled by the corruption of the BNP’s last stint in government, which ended in 2006, that it briefly seized power in an attempt to weed out crooked politicians before allowing an election to go ahead in 2008. (It tried to shunt aside both Mrs Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the current prime minister and leader of the Awami League—to no avail.) In a leaked internal memo, an American diplomat described Tarique Rahman, Mrs Zia’s son and now the BNP’s acting leader, as “a symbol of kleptocratic government and violent politics” who is “notorious for flagrantly and frequently demanding bribes”. (His defenders say wayward hangers-on were responsible for misdeeds blamed on him.)
There is no easy way out of this mess. In an ideal world, Sheikh Hasina would call off politically motivated prosecutions, stop meddling in institutions that are supposed to be independent and reinstate the system of caretaker governments before elections—things she shows no sign of doing. But there is scope for both sides to back away from their maximalist positions.
Sheikh Hasina could appoint a few BNP leaders as ministers in a multi-party government in the lead-up to the vote, giving the opposition some purchase on the process of voting and counting. That would also give the BNP a reason not to boycott the election, as it did last time and threatens to do again. The boycott was self-defeating: it left the BNP with no voice in parliament, and gave the government unfettered power to legislate as it liked. But it also left Sheikh Hasina’s government looking illegitimate. There would be advantages to both sides, in other words, in allowing the opposition to function. Bangladesh deserves better politics. That would be the best way of preserving its admirable economic progress.