Bangladesh: Shaking up the political patriarchy

Katie Silvester and Rita Payne

In Focus Bangladesh

Two women have dominated the country’s political scene since independence – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. But the political rivals are barely on speaking terms

Bangladesh election posters

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s DNA is inextricably entwined with the history of her country. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the country’s first Prime Minister and is now thought of as Bangladesh’s founding father. But tragedy struck three years after he was sworn in as leader, when he was assassinated in 1975, along with most of his family. The only survivors were Sheikh Hasina and her sister, who were visiting Germany at the time.

Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1996, having led the Awami League, her father’s old party, to victory at that year’s elections. Five years later, she lost office to her arch rival Khaleda Zia, when a four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won a landslide victory. In 2004 Hasina survived an assassination attempt, when a grenade was thrown that killed 21 party supporters. But that didn’t keep her from frontline politics and the Awami League swept to victory again in 2008, following voting reforms intended to re-establish confidence in the electoral system, after several opposition parties threatened to boycott an earlier aborted election.

Following a tradition of opposition parties protesting about irregularities at elections – Hasina had complained about vote-rigging following the 2001 elections – the most recent election, on 5 January 2014, was boycotted by the BNP, which had called for the polls to be held under a caretaker government. As a result, voting took place in only 147 of the country’s 300 constituencies, with 153 seats uncontested. The Awami League obtained a two-thirds majority in parliament, with the Jatiya Party forming the parliamentary opposition.

Speaking to Global before the election, Hasina insisted that her government was working hard to promote a fair electoral process: “My whole life, I have been striving to establish democracy and free, fair elections.” However, outsiders saw it differently. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said immediately after the elections: “The limited levels of participation and the low voter turnout are disappointing. The acts of violence are deeply troubling.”

Human Rights Watch declared that hundreds of people were killed or injured in the fighting surrounding the elections. In a report released a few weeks after the ballot, the organisation claimed that all of the parties contesting the election were to blame for the violence. It also accused government agencies of breaches of the rule of law, citing evidence of extra judicial killings and arbitrary arrests, and appealed to the new government to prosecute the members of the law enforcement agencies responsible.

The new government was sworn in on 12 January, but outbreaks of violent unrest continue. Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, was held under house arrest during the election period, ostensibly to help reduce violence carried out by BNP supporters. Zia and Sheikh Hasina are two of the most powerful figures in Bangladeshi politics – Zia has twice been Prime Minster herself. The two women have been dubbed the ‘battling begums’ by the local media and both have known their share of controversy. Both women have been investigated by Bangladesh’s Anti-corruption Commission and each of them have served stints in jail.

Hasina told Global that allegations of corruption against her government are misplaced. “Look, in our country there is this Anti-corruption Commission. They’re working freely, there is no intervention. So wherever there is any allegation of corruption immediately they take steps and they look into it. We also want this country to be called ‘corruption free’, because corruption always hampers progress. If there is really corruption, how could we achieve our GDP above six per cent? How could we achieve our food security? How could we have reduced our poverty from 41 per cent to 26 per cent?”

Bangladesh has seen significant progress in its development since independence in 1971, not only seeing economic improvements, but also experiencing a big reduction of maternal and infant mortality. The country has set itself a target of qualifying to be classified as a middle-income country by 2021, but Hasina hopes to get there sooner.

However, labour rights – particularly health and safety legislation – have not kept up with the pace of industrialisation. The garment manufacturing sector, which has brought Bangladesh key contracts with major Western brands looking for ever cheaper production, has expanded fast. But the industry has become particularly notorious for unsafe working conditions. April 2013 saw the collapse of a garment factory at Rana Plaza, greater Dhaka, killing 1,129 workers and injuring 2,500. Poor working conditions are a feature of most factories in Bangladesh, with long hours and low wages a frequent complaint.

“What happened is that business grew quickly and people started setting up their factories,” says Hasina. “It is very unfortunate that, at that time, they didn’t take much care about safety or whether their industry complies. It is quite natural everywhere, in every country, that when something new comes along and businesses start responding, they get orders so they try to increase their production and the industry naturally grows.

“As you know, this is a private sector and with the private sector, the government has less control. In 1996 when I formed a government, I visited many industries and I tried to find out what the problems were and what the condition of the factories is. Then we started helping them. We gave many incentives to those businesses to improve their conditions and also their fire safety. But, as you know, our tenure was only for five years. Then this BNP government came back to power and they didn’t take much care of it.”

She adds that she continued to lobby for improved conditions for workers from the opposition benches after she lost the following election. “This time when I formed the government, we immediately took the initiative. It’s because of my pressure that they had to increase the minimum amount [for wages] by about 82 per cent.”

In the case of the Rana Plaza collapse, she says that factory owners had re-opened the building illegally, after it had been sealed due to concerns about structural problems with the building when cracks had appeared in one of the walls. Other businesses that rented space in the same building had moved out to wait for the situation to be resolved, but the unlucky garment workers were expected to continue reporting for work. “It is very, very unfortunate – so many people died, so many people injured. But we are assisting those people, helping them, and also we arrested the owner.”

However, all is not doom and gloom in this corner of the Indian sub-continent, with the government currently striving to improve its foreign relations with key international partners. After her first meeting with the new Indian Prime Minister, Hasina said: “We always have wonderful relations with India, irrespective of the ruling party in New Delhi.” It was, after all, to India that she retreated in the 1970s for her own safety in the wake of her father’s assassination.

The two countries are currently working on signing an accord governing the usage of water drawn from the many rivers that flow across the border. And the Bangladeshi Railway Minister has been talking to India about re-opening cross-border railway lines, after the rail links were mothballed following the partition of India.

In October Hasina also visited the United Arab Emirates, talking of strengthening trade relations and working towards a shared goal of religious tolerance in the region.

But it is at home that Hasina will need to work harder if she wants the backing of the Bangladeshi people. Many feel that the problems surrounding the last elections do not give the Awami League much of a mandate to govern for five years. The next election is not due until 2019, but holding a ballot before then, with all parties denouncing violence and adhering to the rule of law, would help to restore faith in Bangladeshi democracy.


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