Bangladesh: Faith in Democracy and Institutions Is In Decline as Election Nears

Council on Foreign Relations

By Steve Cima and Geoffrey Macdonald

As instability roils Bangladesh, the outcome of its upcoming national election—likely in December—is far from certain. At the International Republican Institute (IRI), our new public opinion poll in Bangladesh highlights the dynamics that are likely to shape the upcoming election campaign, its result, and post-election stability.

The poll shows that Bangladesh’s citizens are losing confidence in democratic institutions and processes. The forthcoming election is a critical moment for all political parties to renew the public’s faith in its democracy.

As a single snapshot, IRI’s poll indicates positive signs for Bangladesh. The poll shows that 62 percent of Bangladeshis say the country is headed in the right direction, citing an improving economy and increased development. Further, 69 percent give positive marks to current economic conditions, describing the economic situation as “somewhat good” or “very good.”

However, when compared with IRI’s April 2017 poll, these numbers show significant erosion. The proportion of respondents seeing Bangladesh on the right track declined 13 points in twelve months. Respondents rating the economic situation, security situation, and political stability as “very good” in the poll declined 26 points, 27 points, and 19 points, respectively. The job approval scores declined for many of the country’s government institutions including the army, police, high court, and election commission. When asked to name the single most important problem facing the country, “corruption” (21 percent) and “economy” (16 percent) topped the list.

Historically, Bangladesh’s citizens have had a strong affinity for its democracy. But the public’s current view is polarized, with only 51 percent saying the country’s democracy is “somewhat good” or “very good.” Those reporting that they will “very likely” vote in the next parliamentary election declined 18 points to 58 percent. Further, only 32 percent said they believed that the elections would be credible, with a majority saying they did not know or refused to respond.

These poll results largely mirror IRI’s August 2017 focus group discussion (FGD) study of Bangladeshi public opinion, which was conducted roughly halfway between the 2017 and 2018 polls. The FGD data suggested citizen concern with the performance of government institutions, democracy, and the economy. A man from rural Sylhet said, “The responsibility of the police is to maintain the rules and regulation of a country, but they are causing ordinary people pain. They collect bribes from the innocent people.” A woman from rural Barisal said, “Now all things happen without the opinion of the people. If democracy was available, we would be able to vote.”

Regarding the economy, political instability is exacerbating a lack of job opportunities. “There are no jobs now. Nobody is getting hired,” said a woman from rural Chittagong. A man from urban Rangpur claimed, “I think doing business is now difficult in the present political condition. We can’t run our business as we did previously. There are some politicians who torture us. Torture means they are asking for donations from us and also threatening us, so that we are bound to give them donations.”

In sum, IRI’s public opinion data in Bangladesh from the last year suggests that underneath an otherwise positive outlook lurks rising disillusion with public services, democratic institutions, and the economy. These views will no doubt shape the political debate in the upcoming campaign as the ruling Awami League defends its record and opposition parties attempt to reclaim power.

Regardless of who wins in December, this election is an opportunity for Bangladesh’s political and governing elite to stem the tide of public disaffection and rejuvenate the country’s democracy with free and fair elections and vibrant, nonviolent competition.

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