The current regime of Bangladesh ruled by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been categorized as an authoritarian regime by the V-Dem Institute, a democracy research organization. According to the V-Dem, the current tendencies of the Bangladesh government including the consolidation of the power of the government into the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, around eighty per cent of members in the legislature are from the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), overly controlled civil administration and law enforcement agencies is identifiable with the authoritarian regime (VDem 2018). Moreover, the ruling party also targeted the media by limiting press freedom suspending some television channels and giving threats to journalists (Freedom House, 2013, 69-70; Earb, 2012). In 2013, the government amended the Information and Technology Act 2006 and in 2018, the government passed the Digital Security Act to ensure punishment for those who use digital platforms to criticize the family of the current prime minister (Digital Security Act, 2018; The Business Standard, 2020; Ahmed 2013). These authoritarian tendencies have intensified in the last decade. Even the national election by which the BAL came to power in 2008 was mostly accepted by the national and international agencies; the country’s democracy score had an upward trend at that time. However, the following two elections in 2014 and 2018 were considered unfair by most international organizations.
In this blog, I discuss democratic backsliding in Bangladesh from the perspective of a widely accepted model, namely, the three-stage model of democratic backsliding proposed by Levitsky and Ziblatt (Levitsky & Ziblatt 2018). According to that model, democratic backsliding occurs in three consecutive stages, namely, i) target the “referees”; ii) target opponents of the government; and iii) change the “rules of the game.” In the first stage, the incumbent targets the political institutions of that country, including law enforcement agencies, and the judiciary, to ensure unconditional loyalty of these institutions. In the second stage, the incumbent makes sure the opposition parties, the media, and civil society organizations are silenced. In the third stage, the government establishes complete control over the state and the polity through the changes in the constitution and legislative bodies. In this stage, the incumbent government shaped the electoral system in such a manner that it ensured victory for the incumbent (Riaz 2020).
This three-stage model successfully explained the democratic backsliding of many countries including Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary. However, I argue that the current regime of Bangladesh has not essentially followed the sequence of the suggested path by Levitsky and Ziblatt. In the backsliding process, the incumbent government mainly focused on the third stage. As a part of changing the rule of the game, in 2011, the incumbent government removed the caretaker government system (CTG) by the 15th amendment in the constitution to ensure victory in the upcoming elections (Riaz & Rana 2020). The caretaker government was first introduced in 1990 (and reintroduced in 1996) to make elections free and fair; according to this mechanism, a national election is supposed to be held under a non-partisan cabinet. This idea of CTG was introduced because national elections held only under the non-partisan government were fair in the history of Bangladesh. As the next election in 2014 was held under the incumbent government, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, boycotted the national election and more than half of the nation’s parliamentary seats remained uncontested. The voter turnout rate was low and there was violence during the election and post-election period. In that election, the Awami League won 232 of the 300 seats in parliament (Sapkota 2022). In 2018, the ruling party was able to arrange another unfair election under their control, when the ruling party maintained firm control over the country’s politics and administration to ensure a landslide victory. BNP participated in that election, and before the election, BNP faced severe persecution from the government, and many of their candidates were disqualified in the election. This election was the most manipulated one in Bangladesh’s history, because the Election Commission, the administration, and the law enforcement agencies worked together to ensure the victory of the incumbent government (Bangladesh Country Report 2022).
Though we see some clear evidence that the incumbent government ensured the third stage of the democratic backsliding model, one might find it surprising why the incumbent did not need to follow the first two stages of the model. I argue that the first two stages of the model were mostly done even before the BAL government came into power in 2008. The incumbent did not need to target the referee as the judiciary in Bangladesh has never been independent of the interference of the executive body of the government. The second stage of democratic backsliding was also almost accomplished before the BAL came into power. To explain the process, I need to mention that there was a military-backed interim government right before BAL came into power. Tarique Rahman, the son and political heir-apparent to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia was forced to leave Bangladesh on September 11, 2008, by the Government therefore, one of the key figures of BNP has been out of domestic politics for a long time (BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR 2015). Also, the government filed some cases against Khaleda Zia.
The next election will be held in December 2023 or earlier in the next year. For this election, the opposition political parties demand a caretaker government again to make the election free and fair as BNP knows that there is little chance of getting in power if they participate in the election without a caretaker government. The election commission is the puppet of the ruling party therefore, the upcoming election will be manipulated again like the previous two elections. To make the next election acceptable and restore democratic value, the caretaker government system needs to be revived in the constitution and form the caretaker government including members from civil society who have sufficient experience in creating dialogue across groups. The citizens should have a strong voice in politics and the governing institutions should be reformed otherwise, the democratic system will not be reintroduced again.
Ahmed, Farid. “Bangladesh Ruling Party Wins Elections Marred by Boycott, Violence.” CNN, January 6, 2013.
Bangladesh Country Report 2022
BTI transformation Index
BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR
2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
February 25, 2009
VDem. Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018. Gothenburg: Department of
Political Science, University of Gothenburg, 2019.
Freedom House. 2013. “Freedom in the World: Bangladesh.” Washington, D.C.: USA.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Penguin Random House.
Riaz, Ali, and Md Sohel Rana. “How Democracy Backslides: Tracing the Pathway in Six Countries.” (2020).
Riaz, Ali. “The pathway of democratic backsliding in Bangladesh.” Democratization 28.1 (2021): 179-197.
The Business Standard. 2020. “Freedom of Expression Declined in Bangladesh: Report.”
The Generation.2022 “BANGLADESH: THE COST OF DEMOCRACY”. Samriddhi Sapkota January 3, 2022