It was striking on a recent visit to Bangladesh just how much the country’s current GDP growth rate (7.3% in the last fiscal year) was a source of pride for Bangladeshis. Many pointed out with delight how Bangladesh had trumped its more vaunted neighbour, India (which grew at 7.1% year-on-year).

This distinction is not without basis. Bangladesh has been growing at over 6% consistently for nearly a decade, helping the country’s economy more than double in size from USD 108bn in 2009 to more than USD 250bn in 2018. This has been aided by steady growth of the readymade garment sector as well as a dramatic expansion in power generation under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Awami League (AL) government has embarked on a massive infrastructure programme that has seen the number of power plants increase from 27 to 121 over the last decade, trebling the country’s total capacity to 17,340 MW and nearly doubling electricity access for its citizens, a substantial increase from 47% to 93% of the population. Japanese, Indian, Chinese companies have all been able to secure a slice of this growing pie, highlighting the Hasina government’s adept handling of regional geopolitics, without getting drawn into great power plays.

What makes Bangladesh’s growth story particularly noteworthy is its inclusive nature. A 2016 World Bank report found that between 2005 and 2010, average incomes for the poorest 40% of households grew 0.5% faster than for the country as a whole. By comparison, the poorest 40% of households in India had worse growth rates than the national average over a similar period. Bangladesh also fares better than India on indicators such as infant mortality, school enrolment and life expectancy. The government is now setting its eyes on achieving a growth rate of 10% over the next three years, with the country widely expected to leave the Least Developed Country (LDC) category to enter the ranks of developing countries by 2024.

However, there is one challenge that could threaten the country’s growth trajectory, namely the country’s political situation. Bangladesh is mired in political dysfunction, in which politics has long been dominated by Hasina, the incumbent prime minister and head of the ruling AL, and the leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia. What began as differing opinions over whether it was Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman who played a central role in the country’s liberation war in 1971 has descended into one of the most intense political feuds in the world. The conflict between the two have potentially debilitating consequences for governance as well as the business environment in Bangladesh.

Between 1990 and 2009, the political contest between the centre-left and broadly secular AL and the centre-right and more religiously minded BNP was largely equal, with the two parties taking turns to govern. That changed in 2009 soon after the AL came to power. The AL initiated a war crimes tribunal to try those accused of supporting the West Pakistani army in the Bangladesh Liberation War, which almost exclusively targeted and executed members of the country’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an electoral ally of the BNP. The AL also abolished the system of neutral caretaker governments to oversee elections, which in turn prompted the BNP to boycott the 2014 elections, a self-defeating move which allowed the AL to further consolidate its power by winning a three-fourths majority in parliament.

In recent years, the AL has intensified the crackdown on opposition parties by arresting scores of BNP and JeI supporters and members. It has also successfully pursued a string of cases against both Zia and her son and heir-apparent, Tarique Rahman, rendering them ineligible to contest in the upcoming polls.

Faced with an acute leadership crisis, the BNP has forged an unlikely alliance with several centrist parties called the Jatiya Oikya Front (National United Front) to challenge the AL in the 30 December polls. The coalition is headed by Dr Kamal Hossain, an octogenarian Oxford-educated lawyer who drafted the country’s secular constitution. Hossain has been compared in the media to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, an experienced statesman who has the potential to upend the country’s politics.

Although Hossain has made it clear that he is only lending his name to the movement and is not a candidate for premiership, his participation signals a break in Bangladesh’s political order in which the leading parties are largely family-run enterprises. The AL government is justifiably nervous and has in recent weeks introduced laws that human rights groups allege give the administration sweeping powers to arrest dissenters and silence the media. Further, the AL has leveraged its influence over the judiciary and the election commission to disqualify opposition candidates’ nomination papers. It has also sought to co-opt Islamist organisations such as the Hefazat-e-Islam – which runs more than 14,000 madrassahs (religious schools) teaching 1.4m students – by recognising their degrees, much to liberals’ chagrin.

The upcoming elections have far-reaching implications not just for Bangladesh growth trajectory in the coming years but also for foreign companies doing business in the country. Unless the AL takes steps to allow for a more level-playing field for opposition parties, a likely win for the AL risks further intensifying the ideological divide between secularists and Islamists, which would lead to growing radicalisation of outlawed and persecuted members of religious parties and groups over the coming years. Without a viable outlet to voice their political opinions, this has the potential of creating a large pool of disaffected individuals, for whom global jihadist ideologies will continue to present an increasingly appealing alternative.

Indeed, the same conditions sowed the seeds for a terrorist attack in July 2016 on the Holey Artisan Bakery in the capital Dhaka. This was the country’s worst terrorist attack, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people, mostly foreigners. The six gunmen who carried the attacks were largely from upper middle-class families. They attended private schools or universities in Dhaka and Malaysia, and socialised at cafes, played sports and were active on social media; one of the assailants was even a son of an AL politician. While Hasina has largely taken a security-led approach to clamp down on militant groups, the counter-terrorist offensive’s long-term success will hinge on a more inclusive approach that allows for greater political expression by parties of all ideological leanings.

However, what should we expect if the Jatiya Oikya Front were to confound pundits and win the elections? While it will help restore the bipolar competition that characterised Bangladesh politics between 1990 and 2009, we would likely see the cases against BNP leaders, such as Zia and Rahman, dropped, paving the way for them to assume political offices in a new government. However, this would almost certainly be accompanied by the pursuit of politically motivated tit-for-tat trials against Hasina and AL leaders, triggering a potential return to episodes of political violence, posing significant operational and security risks for businesses in Bangladesh. There is also likely to be greater scrutiny of contracts awarded by the AL government to foreign players during its term, heightening risks for companies looking to renegotiate contracts, notably in the infrastructure and power sectors.

The fear of retribution by the BNP explains the AL’s concerted efforts to stay on in power but it also shows how unlike in more mature democracies – where winning and losing elections are part and parcel of politics – Bangladesh’s politics is a Darwinian battle for political survival at the expense of one’s opponent. This would bode ill for its longer-term development; unless its political environment becomes more equitable and stable, its laudable socio-economic gains may prove unsustainable.

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