Elections in Bangladesh – Why do we care?

Bangladesh, a vibrant secular democracy of more than 160 million people, mainly-Muslim inhabitants, is facing instability in the wake of parliamentary elections scheduled to January 5th. The elections are set to determine who steers the country for the next five years. Despite no relations or unofficial contact between Israel and Bangladesh, Jerusalem should deliver messages of reconciliation and strive to establish economic ties with this emerging economy, which some call it the next “Asian tiger”.

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is located in South Asia, bordering India, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, and the Kingdom of Bhutan. With a population of around 163.5 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country. 89.5% of its population is Muslim (predominantly Sunni) while the rest is made up of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. Although Bangladesh is considered an under-developed country, often associated with floodings, famine and tropical cyclones, it is also being marked with the potential of becoming an emerging economy, with promising forecasts for investment and future growth.

The borders of modern Bangladesh took shape during the partition of the region of Bengal, which was divided in 1947 along religious lines. The eastern half of Bengal made up predominantly of Muslims, became the East Bengal state of Pakistan and the predominantly Hindu western part of Bengal became the Indian state of West Bengal. This separation did not resolve the tensions between the Hindus and Muslims within Pakistan, which war between the east and the west parts of Pakistan ensued in 1971. The bloody civil war resulted in the creation of an independent East Pakistan, known as Bangladesh.

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy with an elected parliament. The Prime Minister, as the head of the government, runs the day-to-day affairs of state, and while being formally appointed by the president, he or she must be a member of parliament who enjoys the support of the majority. The President is the head of state, albeit mainly ceremonial in his/her elected post. But Bangladesh has not always been a democracy; since it won independence in 1971, the country has faced a few military coups and military-backed governments. A fully democratic rule prevailed in December 2008, with the election of the Awami League (AL) and current female Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the founding father of Bangladesh, has brought back an explicitly secular constitution under which relegates religious politics to the past.

The Awami League government promised to introduce a new type of politics and to fight corruption. Nevertheless, in 2011 Prime Minister Hasina abolished the constitutional norm of giving power to a non-political caretaker government 90 days before the elections. This change caused the opposition to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled to January 5th. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition, claims that without an interim caretaker government, the ruling Awami League cannot be trusted to hold a free and fair elections.

In the last few weeks, this political tumult has generated a wave of protests and street violence, which resulted in a governmental decision to deploy tens of thousands of troops in the streets “in order to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections”. In addition, a month ago an Islamist politician was executed and other opposition leaders were sentenced to death accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. These verdicts, together with the major opposition party’s decision to boycott the polls could result in political destabilization, similar to that of 2006 and 2007 when the army took control of power. According to Raja Mohan, a nonresident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this battle between Prime Minister Hasina, who swears by secularism and ethnic nationalism, and the Islamic BNP, fundamentally characterizes the subcontinent’s history, since Bangladesh was liberated by India from the clutches of the Pakistan army. Mohan claims that this is also about the political future of the subcontinent – will it be more of a secular democracy like India or more of an Islamic version of Pakistan?

The State of Israel recognized Bangladesh two months after its independence and was willing to establish diplomatic relations. Dhaka did not accept the reaching hand of Jerusalem and in the course of time adopted the declared policy of the Arab States at the time – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it. Moreover, Bangladesh officially forbids its citizens to travel to Israel by stating on Bangladeshi passports that they are valid for all countries except Israel. Moreover, there are no economic relations between the two states since the Bangladeshi ban includes a ban on trade, both direct and indirect. This ban violates the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which Bangladesh and Israel are members.

This policy towards Jerusalem has been adopted as Dhaka needed the political support of the Muslim world and the support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Furthermore, Bangladesh has had no intention of undermining its strong and important relations with Saudi Arabia. While the Kingdom has become a major source of financing and economic aid to Bangladesh, around two million Bangladeshis live and work in Saudi Arabia and are thereby helping its economy.

After establishing full diplomatic relations with China and India in 1992, Israel sought a relationship with Bangladesh. A few leaders of Jewish organizations in the U.S. and several American senators met with Bangladeshi ministers at the time and demanded that Dhaka recognize Israel. The Bangladeshis told their American friends that political ties are not feasible but Dhaka could consider establishing basic trade relations. Regardless of why this acceptance did not bear fruit, Israel should realize that the Bangladeshi economy of 1992-1993 is nothing like the current economy. According to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, Bangladesh is among the next eleven economies identified as having great investment opportunities in technology, textiles and real estate. Economists believe that Bangladesh could join what have been called the “7 percent club” of economies that expand at least 7 percent annually for an extended period, resulting in the doubling of these economies every decade – as is seen in the case of China and India. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, has become the second-largest apparel exporter and a series player in the global software and services market place.

Although a full normalization of relations between Jerusalem and Dhaka is not realistic in the near future, there are a wide range of feasible options that lie between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact.

In this regard, Israel should realize that the political environment had changed. Nowadays, Bangladesh is not a young fragile state, who desperately needs to be affiliated with the Islamic countries. The Bangladesh of 2013 is a state who understands the strategic importance of India and whose biggest trade partner is the United States. In recent times, the Bangladeshi regimes had used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or the Kashmir issue or the U.S. invasion of Iraq for this matter) to reinforce the notion of victimhood and injustice of the Muslim world in order to gain popular support at home. In my opinion, Bangladesh’s position towards Israel in the last decade, therefore, has been an attempt to divert the public attention every so often from a range of failures of governance.

Following the elections, I argue that Jerusalem should deliver a message of reconciliation and recognition, which would reflect its desire to establish ties with Dhaka. Furthermore, Israel should use Washington to establish economic ties with Bangladesh. The U.S. could decide to restore Bangladesh’s trade privileges, which were removed six months ago, only if Dhaka ends the economic boycott of Israel. And it would not be the first time the U.S. is considering offering carrots to different countries in order to benefit with the Jewish state; Ten years ago, for example, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representative introduced the Middle East Trade and Engagement Act. The bill proposed an expanded Middle East Free Trade Area to any country that “supports a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “does not participate in the primary, secondary, or tertiary economic boycott of Israel”. Needless to say that a visible improvement in Israel-Bangladesh relations could further complicated relationships between Jerusalem and Muslim non-Middle East countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

About the Author
Ohad Shpak is a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, the world's first crowdsourced consultancy. Ohad was part of the political team of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. and worked for the Israeli Ministry of Justice and the Middle East Media Research Institute. A StandWithUs fellow, he holds a law degree from Hebrew University and now lives in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter at @OhadShpak