Democracy to Autocracy: Bangladesh in Context


The old BNP cannot be part of the new opposition. It needs to cut away the baggage of its mistakes and its toxic parts, writes William Milam

by William Milam April 19, 2019

I received another interesting academic article on the retreat of democracy a few days ago. It is co-authored by two scholars, one at the University of Virginia and the other at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden. Readers may remember that I wrote of a breakthrough article on “autocratization” about a month ago which was co-authored by two scholars at the University of Gothenberg. It seems that university is in the vanguard of scholarship on the woes of democracy in the 21st century. The article I received more recently, entitled Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding was not in the breakthrough class, and as the title indicates focused on countries that remain ostensible or outward democracies. While that might seem to limit its application to Bangladesh, which has clearly crossed the divide between democracy and autocracy, I found this article a good supplement to the one on autocratization, which helped me understand the context in which Bangladesh finds itself these days, by giving me insight into how it got there.

It is not clear, of course, where the divide on the continuum between democracy and autocracy is, but the recent article, even though it is limited to democracies, gives some hints of how to judge this. More difficult, I think, is to predict when, if ever, a country might reverse course. But the article gives some insights as to what to look for though it is so replete with political science jargon that it was dizzyingly difficult to pull these out. What I found most valuable, however, was that understanding the basics of democratic backsliding gave me a much better idea of how far Bangladesh has gone to the other side, and what it would take for the country to reverse course.

Democratic backsliding, according to the authors of this study, occurs when there are “clearly intended” efforts by the government “through a discontinuous series of incremental actions” to weaken democracy. These could include rendering elections less competitive through intimidation of opposition voters or violence against them while maintaining the façade of universal suffrage. It might include loosening the constraints of accountability through erosion of judicial independence, purchase of the police, or repression of the media. This prevents the impartial imposition of punishment on those guilty of corruption or malfeasance. One must understand that discontinuous means that these actions may seem to be taken haphazardly, and or to be disconnected and far apart in time.

In Bangladesh this has been a long and winding process. In the early years of electoral democracy, between 1991 and 2011, this worked through a decline in the quality of democracy. That is the focus of measuring democratic backsliding, according to the authors of this study. One could mark 2011 as the inflection point, when the actions that weakened democracy became more continuous and coordinated following the Awami League government using its veto-proof majority in the parliament to remove the Caretaker Amendment from the Constitution. It seems to me that it was in that period, after 2011, that the government’s actions switched to aiming at a decline in the democratic qualities of governance. This is the authors’ marker for autocratization. Measuring this is infinitely complicated as small degrees of change can have large implications for whether a country is on uphill or the downhill side of the democracy-autocracy continuum. I have written many times that the removal of the Caretaker Amendment was the turning point for Bangladesh democracy, and one of my conclusions from this study is that this remains incontrovertible.

In the earlier period, under both the Awami League and the BNP governments that traded terms between 1991 and 2011, both parties, for example, did everything in their power to make the elections less competitive, and tried to ensure their re-election, which neither ever was. The Caretaker Amendment, which required a neutral interim government to run the election, effectively stopped their worst instincts. But the BNP government of 2001-2006 tried to subvert the process by creating a Caretaker Government in its own image for the 2007 election instead of the neutral one the Constitution required, and that led to the military intervention of 2007. Ordinarily, this military intervention would be viewed as a major step toward autocratization, but in fact it served only to ensure the election of the Awami League in 2009 with a veto-proof majority, with which it discarded the Caretaker Amendment two years later. Thus, the military intervention, which set up a civilian façade government of technocrats, served only to hasten a political drift toward autocratization, another lesson to others that the so-called “Bangladesh Solution” solved nothing.

The electoral story since 2011 is well known and need not be repeated—a one-party election in 2014 as the BNP very unwisely boycotted the election. In 2018, when there appeared to be a formidable opposition coalition, the Awami League government stole the election with a campaign to restrict voting on steroids, using all the tools in the how-to-steal-an-election handbook, and made the election not just less competitive but totally non-competitive. It won 96 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Apart from elections, for which the Awami League government was motivated to go far beyond the normal level of election cheating in 2018 to preserve the advantage it was gifted by the fluke of a boycott of 2014, it has followed the pattern discerned in the autocratization study. The third wave of autocratization was carried out by leaders who moved slowly and carefully, almost clandestinely, to undermine institutions that protected democracy and protected oppositions as well as preserved competiveness. Sheikh Hasina has followed this pattern assiduously as she has gone about ridding the one party government of a viable opposition, smothering the media, intimidating the public in the quiet and methodical ways predicted by the patterns found in that study. Except in the elections, in which she acted as past despots have by seizing the opportunity offered by the opposition boycott in 2014 and then by going into overdrive on election chicanery in 2018 to ensure there would be no opposition to counter her next move (whatever that is), she has followed the example of her autocratic peers and moved slowly, cautiously, and often clandestinely.

The democratic backsliding study adds some thoughts at the end which are also pertinent generally to the Bangladesh march to autocracy. First in thinking about democratic backsliding in a balance of power framework, it notes that “dominant-party systems imply an imbalance of power that…provides opportunities for executives to initiate backsliding” and a relative imbalance of constituencies, including external actors, can make backsliding [or autocratization] more likely. I think here of the imbalance of power that the removal of the Caretaker Amendment and more importantly the 2014 boycott gave to the Awami League. Secondly, as far as constituencies go, the all-out political support of India, the behemoth to the West of Bangladesh, for Sheikh Hasina’s backsliding and later autocratization certainly made it easier for her to undermine the institutions of democracy.

What neither of these articles address is how can the course be reversed. That seems an especially difficult question for a country which has crossed the Rubicon into autocracy as Bangladesh may have. But I am certain that the core of an opposition which was forcefully shut out of the polls on December 30 last year remains determined to bring Bangladesh back from autocracy. That has to start with the opposition itself. The old BNP cannot be part of the new opposition. It needs to cut away the baggage of its mistakes and its toxic parts.  The journey away from autocracy towards democracy starts with a reformed opposition centered around the core of the coalition that was the opposition, but with a reformed BNP, one that has cut the toxic baggage that made it untrustworthy in the eyes of voters, many of whom I understand who felt it not worth the risk of going to the polls given the AL/government juggernaut. The BNP will never see power again in its present form, and outside of a coalition of opposition parties.

The writer is a diplomat, and senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C

The article was published in the Friday Times on 19 April 2019