Opposition and worker protests create an unstable setting for Bangladesh’s general election

The country has enjoyed economic development and stability, but with opposition parties banned and protest continuing, a peaceful election is uncertain.

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Bangladesh’s general election, scheduled for January 7, will likely be plagued by controversy and violence.

Growing anti-government sentiment, rooted in calls for the reinstatement of a neutral caretaker government abolished in 2013, has become intertwined with the grievances of the country’s strategically important textile sector.

Thousands of opposition leaders have been arrested following a major rally in October. This comes amid growing frictions with the West: the US imposed visa restrictions on several Bangladeshi nationals in 2021 for ‘undermining the democratic election process’ and the 2023 Civicus Monitor Report has recently downgraded Bangladesh’s civic space to ‘closed’, its lowest category.

Bangladesh’s 2018 general election was not considered free and fair by many observers, following a near unanimous victory for the ruling Awami League party, which secured 293 of 300 seats.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hopes to challenge allegations of democratic backsliding by showing it is capable of holding a free and fair election in January. Over two dozen political parties have registered to participate in the 2024  election and over 100 observers will monitor the proceedings.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is boycotting the election, with most of its senior leadership detained.

But critics argue that these actions offer only a veneer of a credible democratic process. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is boycotting the election, with most of its senior leadership detained.

The government has also clamped down on the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, whose registration was canceled by a high court order in August. Recent violent clashes between security forces and anti-government protestors saw two protestors killed and dozens injured.

The government claims its crackdown on opposition parties is motivated by a push to return the country to its secular character and protect its national security, following a string of terrorist attacks a decade ago, including the bombing of a Dhaka café in July 2016 that killed 29 people including 17 foreign nationals.

But violent reaction to protests and international pressures are combining to create a challenging setting for a peaceful, free and fair election.

Economic development and democratic backsliding

The end of the previous era of the ‘battling begums’, when power would oscillate (sometimes violently) between the Awami League and BNP has been welcomed by some, for bringing about a more stable and predictable policy environment.

Stability has facilitated economic development, especially the growth of the textile and garment industry, which employs around 4 million workers.

This stability has facilitated economic development in Bangladesh, especially the growth of the textile and garment industry, which employs around 4 million workers and accounted for about 9.3 per cent of GDP in 2022. 3,500 garment factories produce around 85 per cent of its $55 billion in annual exports.

This growth has in turn contributed to poverty reduction, with the number of people living below the poverty line falling from 41.5 per cent in 2006 to 18.7 per cent in 2022.

Bangladesh recently surpassed Pakistan in per capita income, which is significant considering that Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until 1971.

As such, Bangladesh has seen considerable economic development run in parallel with democratic backsliding.

Textile sector troubles

But the garment sector and its structural issues have become closely intertwined with opposition protests. While the textile sector is key to economic development, working conditions are dire for many workers, of whom the vast majority are women on monthly pay starting at 8,300 taka ($75).

Thousands went on strike in October and November, in parallel to political rallies, demanding wage increases.

Authorities responded with more violent crackdowns, and mass arrests. A raise of the minimum monthly wage by 56.25 per cent in November was rejected by unions, who are seeking a near tripling of wages.

The Bangladesh government faces mounting international pressure from its main export markets in the US and EU.

The Bangladesh government faces mounting international pressure from its main export markets in the US and EU.

In November, an EU monitoring mission assessed the compliance of Bangladesh with its commitments under the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) trade arrangement. Bangladesh is the largest beneficiary of the EBA, with exports to the EU reaching 24 billion euros in 2022.

The US, meanwhile, condemned the crackdown on workers and trade unionists and announced a new labour policy on 16 November 2023, the Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights and High Labor Standards Globally, raising fears of sanctions against Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Regional pressures

Bangladesh’s election also needs to be seen in a broader regional context. To its south the country borders Myanmar, in a renewed state of civil war following a military coup in 2021. Bangladesh already hosted more than one million Rohingya refugees from the country, presenting an economic, social and potential security crisis.

To the north, east and west is India, the world’s largest democracy. India-Bangladesh relations have flourished under the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and tensions over the poorly demarcated border have dissipated.

The survival of Bangladesh’s democracy is contingent on the survival of Indian secularism to some extent.

But anti-Bengali sentiment in India’s northeast, supported by legislation seen to be discriminating against the country’s Muslim populations (such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens in Assam) threatens to fuel radicalization within Bangladesh, presenting another security challenge. In this context, the survival of Bangladesh’s democracy is contingent on the survival of Indian secularism to some extent.

China has also played an increasingly prominent role in Bangladesh’s fate. With its high levels of literacy (around 75 per cent) and high levels of female participation in the workforce, which increased to 42.7 per cent in 2022, Bangladesh is seen as a potential beneficiary of a US push to reorient supply-chains away from China.

At the same time, China is a key trade, investment and security partner for Bangladesh, with firms like Huawei closely cooperating in the development of the country’s 5G networks.

Outlook for the election

Developments in Bangladesh can be seen as a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing other emerging economies: the trade-off between democracy and development, and the balancing of relations with geopolitical opponents, such as the US and China or China and India.

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The country also faces a highly complex landscape of socio-economic challenges, needing to reduce its over-reliance on textile exports and attract foreign direct investment beyond its traditional sectors, while managing the protests of opposition supporters and textile workers without escalating violence.

It must also demonstrate some measure of accountability in governance to be sure of continuing good relations with crucial export markets like the EU.

The interconnected nature of democratic accountability, transparency, labour rights, and environmental sustainability in the garment sector underscores the need for comprehensive structural change, encompassing not only wage demands but also the broader socio-environmental impact of its industry.

January’s election may provide some indication of Bangladesh’s ability to meet that challenge, and continue on a path to a peaceful, stable transition from a least developed country to middle-income status – in a neighborhood where democracy is arguably in recession.