Sunday’s elections in Bangladesh “could be the most consequential election in Bangladesh’s history,” Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, tells us in the latest edition of The Pivot podcast.
They’re the first in a series of national elections that will take place in dozens of countries this year, home to half of the global population, making 2024 the most important election year in world history.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who has ruled Bangladesh since 2009, and her Awami League are certain to return to power. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is boycotting the polls. Its leader, the former two-time prime minister Khaleda Zia, is currently hospitalized and has been detained since 2018. Hasina’s hope, it appears, is that her chief rival Ms. Zia and the BNP will soon die.
While the outcome of the Bangladesh elections is a foregone conclusion, Riaz says the polls could “determine the future political landscape in Bangladesh” and whether a genuine opposition can survive. At the moment, Bangladesh is headed toward becoming a one-party state with an opposition made of king’s parties. The BNP could be banned.
The Bangladesh Paradox: Myth and Reality
Bangladesh, which came into existence during natural and manmade calamities, has long defied the gloomy predictions of outsiders. It’s also puzzled many development economists, who observe its rapid economic growth and development gains amid poor governance and rampant corruption. Many call it “the Bangladesh Paradox.”
Indeed, the official economic data is impressive. Since Hasina took over in 2009, Bangladesh has averaged 6.5 percent annual economic growth. But Riaz cautions that the figures are suspect. Authoritarians like Hasina, he says, “love statistics” for their validating effects and “tend to manufacture data.”
While Riaz says the Bangladeshi economy has seen healthy growth over the past two decades, it’s been built on the backs of low-wage earners toiling in Bangladesh’s garment factories and Gulf Arab states. Today, these workers and those who depend on them are being hit hard by high inflation. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. And so is the discontent. The seams on Hasina’s regime are loosening.
Growing Repression and Anger
The conviction of celebrated Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus last week is a chilling reminder of the extent to which Hasina is willing to repress opposing voices.
Bangladesh’s once robust civil society “has been practically decimated,” says Riaz. It has been hit by a double blow of politicization and state repression. Riaz points toward a broader culture of fear in Bangladesh, driven by a growing surveillance state. Extrajudicial killings, including by the U.S.-sanctioned Rapid Action Batallion paramilitary, have grown under Hasina.
At the same time, billions of dollars have been siphoned off by corrupt elites, Riaz says, through the energy sector and non-performing bank loans, which have hit an all-time high.
Sustainable growth in Bangladesh requires genuine democracy and empowered, independent institutions, like the election commission, the judiciary, and anti-corruption bodies.
Hasina’s victory on Sunday could very well be the calm before the storm. A course correction is in Bangladesh’s interest.
Bangladesh has seen rapid economic growth and development gains amid poor governance, rampant corruption, and growing repression. On Sunday, Bangladeshi voters went to the polls to take part in elections that were neither free nor fair. Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss how deep and durable Bangladesh’s socio-economic gains are and whether they can be sustained under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarian regime.
- Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor, Department of Political Science and Government, Illinois State University
Dr. Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University.
He was the chair of the Department of Politics and Government between 2007 and 2017. Riaz previously taught at universities in Bangladesh, England, and the United States. He also worked as a broadcast journalist at the BBC and served as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Riaz earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii in 1993.
His primary areas of interest include democratization, political Islam, and Bangladeshi politics. Riaz has published in English and Bengali. He has authored 19 books in English and 12 books in Bengali, including Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.