The ruling Awami League government has become increasingly ‘autocratic’ over the last two years. This was the opinion of various prominent journalist, activist, business and civil society sources The Risk Advisory Group spoke with in Dhaka during a recent research trip. In the face of weak and ineffective opposition from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Awami League has become more controlling, oppressive and corrupt. This trend seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future – only halfway through its current term, the government looks likely to win again in the next parliamentary elections.

Since the January 2014 parliamentary elections, which the BNP boycotted, the Awami League has cracked down on the opposition and dissenting voices. Suppression has weakened the opposition. Several people told Risk Advisory that internal rifts in the BNP, as well as its inability to present itself as a credible opposition, have strengthened the Awami League’s position. Various people that Risk Advisory analysts spoke with believed that the BNP will not be able to mount a serious challenge at the general election in 2019, if it decides to take part at all.

These developments have also negatively affected the way the government deals with both local and foreign businesses. Corruption has long been a problem for foreign businesses looking to operate in Bangladesh. Several business and political journalists informed us that the government has placed its party members into key industry positions and now monopolised any profits or kickbacks, and it has become more difficult for businesses affiliated with the BNP or JI to operate.

Silencing dissent

Transparency International’s corruption perception index for this year ranked Bangladesh as the second most corrupt country in South Asia, behind only Afghanistan. Corruption continues to permeate through all parts of the state, including the judiciary, police, tax administration and public services. The report also highlighted that the situation is becoming worse in the country because of the Awami League’s decision to clamp down on civil society.

Two prominent civil society activists and several journalists our analysts that over the past two years it has become more difficult for anyone to criticise the government, with increasing limitations on freedom of speech. In August, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered 32 online news sites to close for posting ‘objectionable content’. And on 5 October, the government proposed a bill that made it a criminal offence for foreign-funded NGOs to make ‘malicious’ remarks about the government. This was after the head of Transparency International Bangladesh criticised the parliament for ‘low-level of participation’ of MPs in lawmaking in the absence of any opposition.

Discontent at growing evidence of autocratic behaviour has yet to translate into anti-government protests. A prominent protest leader and activist said that while demonstrations still occur to pressure the Awami League on social issues, there was not yet a willingness among protesters to mobilise large numbers of people against the government because the alternative to the current government was widely perceived as potentially even worse. A political vacuum created because of a weakened BNP means that the Awami League will probably remain unchallenged for several years to come.

By: Security Intelligence & Analysis Service

Image: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 4 July 2016, AP, Press Association Images