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Bangladesh’s power politics a nightmare for millions

Political parties battle for power while ordinary people suffer amid a failing economy, inflation, and pandemic effects
Supporters of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) march on the streets of capital Dhaka to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League for a neutral administration to oversee the upcoming general election.

Supporters of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) march on the streets of capital Dhaka to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League for a neutral administration to oversee the upcoming general election. (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

Published: November 14, 2023 03:40 AM GMT
Updated: November 14, 2023 05:17 AM GMT

Millions of ordinary citizens in Bangladesh are forced into an endless saga of suffering as two main political parties hold them hostage ahead of the national election to be held next January.

The ruling Awami League (AL) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have once again chosen to make millions of people pawns in their power battle by using might instead of dialogue and consensus for a free and fair election in the South Asian nation.

Many people are frustrated that after more than five decades of independence from Pakistan and over three decades since the return to parliamentary democracy after 15-years of military rule, Bangladesh has failed to do away with politics of confrontation that backslides democratization.

Right now, the BNP has enforced nationwide strikes and blockades to try and force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the AL to resign for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election, which she has vehemently refused to do.

In response, the government has launched a heavy crackdown on the opposition. Most senior BNP leaders and thousands of supporters have been arrested on criminal charges, a move critics say aims to dissuade the party from using public anger over a failing economy and high levels of inflation for a mass public uprising.

Street violence between the ruling and opposition parties has seen at least 16 people killed, scores injured and over a hundred vehicles burned in the past two weeks. The dead are ordinary people — political activists, a journalist, a tea vendor, and a low-rank police officer.

"Without a neutral administration the upcoming election will be just another farce that the party will boycott"

Democracy advocates blame the ruling party for the political stalemate. AL came to power in the 2008 election overseen by a military-backed caretaker regime. The party secured two more terms through controversial and rigged elections in 2014 and 2018.

In 1996, the then-opposition AL successfully waged a violent political campaign for a caretaker government, which oversaw credible elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008.

The party abolished that system through a controversial constitutional amendment in 2011, claiming a caretaker administration is exploitative as it allows non-political entities to assume power and conflicts with the constitution.

Referring to the 2014 and 2018 elections, BNP leaders say without a neutral administration the upcoming election will be just another farce that the party will boycott.

In fact, the BNP made similar bids for one before the 2014 and 2018 elections but failed. Clashes left at least 36 dead during these elections. Many died in violence before and after the polls.

Most of the nation’s 170 million people are already struggling due to rising inflation, the high cost of living in general, and the pandemic effects. The disruption to normal life and businesses due to political battles has made their lives even worse.

Price hikes have soared due to blockades and people are unable to move freely. Despite security risks, millions of students are forced to attend classes and exams as their academic year ends in December.

Religious minorities, who make up less than ten percent of the population, are frustrated and anxious. Both Buddhists and Hindus failed to dissuade political parties from carrying out their violent programs on Oct. 28 as the Buddhist Prabarana Purnima and Hindu Luxmi Puja festivals fell on that day.

Christians fear a violent Christmas time this year.

"Hope turned into disillusion and the people know that the current political parties do not care about them"

Ruling party leaders and ministers have been encouraging supporters to resist the BNP at any cost.   

“Carry sticks with you and give picketers a lesson wherever you get them,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan recently told a gathering of transport workers in the capital Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s failure to become a functional democracy after the end of military rule is the result of a lack of trust among political parties and their false promises, analysts say.

“The thought that parliamentary democracy will stabilize over time in Bangladesh was proved wrong,” said Mohammad Tarikul Islam, who teaches government and politics at Jahanagirnagar University.  

“The hope turned into disillusion and the people know that the current political parties do not care about them,” he said.

Political analysts fear further deterioration in law and order as the Election Commission is set to announce the poll schedule this week. Some even foresee a military takeover if the situation spirals out of control.

Though Bangladesh was never a true democracy, democratic checks and balances were somewhat maintained after elections in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the AL and BNP jostling for power.

The 2014 and 2018 elections yielded rubber-stamp parliaments without effective opposition. Almost all bills were passed through "yes/no" votes without critical debates and discussions.

The reality is neither the AL nor BNP have mass popular support anymore. 

“People have realized they are just pawns in the game,” said Islam, adding that both parties failed to keep their promises to deliver good governance and strengthen democracy when in power.

“We are starving. We are slowly dying”

Observers say both parties have striking similarities in their performance, and they tend to hang on to power at any cost despite lacking public support.

“Like many other countries in the world, the winner takes it all after every election,” said Al Masud Hasanuzzaman, who also teaches government and politics at Jahangirnagar University

“Soon the parties realize that the stakes in losing power are very high and want to keep it by hook or by crook,” he said.

This comes against the fact that one-fifth of the country’s population still lives in abject poverty with very limited access to basic human needs, while expenses for education and health are ranked among the highest in the developing world.

A walk into the sprawling shantytowns in major cities is enough to realize how the poor masses lead a miserable life year after year. The slums in the capital Dhaka continue to expand as an estimated 2,000 migrants arrive every day in the overcrowded city. The influx of migrants is attributed to economic reasons and climate change-infused disasters like cyclones, flooding, and river erosion.

In the city, the poor migrants eke out a living from low-paid odd jobs as rickshaw pullers, construction workers, and street vendors.    

Mohammad Jahangir, a 30-year-old rickshaw puller, was visibly upset as he struggled to find passengers in a desolate Dhaka street during a recent blockade.

“We are starving. We are slowly dying,” Jahangir exclaimed.

The poor Muslim man rides a rented rickshaw 10 hours a day and makes 10,000 taka (US$91) per month after paying the daily rent of 155 taka. He sends most of the money to his family in poverty-stricken northern Panchagarh district.

The Center for Policy Dialogue, a think-tank, estimated in 2022 that a four-member family needs at least 22,664 taka to survive.

“We curse our politicians who will never try to realize what it takes to pull people through potholed city streets with sheer physical strength,” said Jahangir.

“Down with what they are doing in the name of politics,” he said.

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