Is Authoritarianism Capturing The Political Narrative?

Putting the authoritarian Bangladesh and its leader under the microscope that other authoritarian leaders have been under would help us understand better and resist the tectonic shift in international governance that is taking place right before our eyes.

Is Authoritarianism Capturing The Political Narrative?
Anne Applebaum, the well-known and highly respected historian of authoritarianism, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2020 book, “The Twilight of Democracy,” begins a recent article in The Atlantic magazine with the words, “If the 20th Century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, Fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.” The new article is a follow-on to the book, and it expands and deepens her analysis by depicting the growth of international networks of authoritarian operatives who link various such regimes to work together to promote the growth of authoritarian governance across the globe.

The thesis is compelling. Applebaum goes on to deride the ‘cartoon image’ many of us have of an autocratic country with a villain at the top who controls all the punitive levers of the state and uses violence or the threat of violence, and/or bribes to get his way. These days, she says, “autocracies are run, not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military police, paramilitary groups, surveillance) and professional propagandists.” She explains that the links between these elements run among many countries and reinforce each other in solidifying and expanding authoritarianism. It is, in effect she writes, an ‘autocratic alliance’.

Where I get off this train of thought is Applebaum’s assertion that this alliance has no unifying ideology. Yes, the motley crew of authoritarians run the gamut from communists to quasi—in thought at least—fascists to pure and simple nationalists and populists, and even to theocrats.

But they are united ideologically by a narrative of success combined with victimisation. Authoritarianism is accompanied by the narrative of some version of success. Sometimes it is real if only partial. Sometimes it is imaginary, and this is usually playing on or exacerbating a memory of overcoming or escaping a real or mythical previous victimhood. This is often where the propagandists come in.

Applebaum turns early in her article to specific examples—Belarus, Russia, Venezuela, Myanmar, Cuba, China, and others—which we all know about. She is particularly focused on those which are leaders in disinformation campaigns beyond their borders, such as the Russian campaign in Middle Europe and later in the US, and the vulnerability of the US and the slowly dwindling number of liberal democratic countries due to the disinformation sewed by Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes. She remarks pointedly on our seeming indifference in most of the last few decades to the transgressions of these authoritarians, and the decline of liberal democracy as the center of US and Western foreign policy, in part she says, because some part of the American Left has lost faith in democracy.

I agree with most of this, but one of my reference points when I think about the decline of democracy and the growth of authoritarian governance around the world is South Asia, and in particular Bangladesh. It is, I think, a good example of the fallacious narrative that authoritarianism can bring good policy that leads to economic and social success. The case in Bangladesh, I believe, is that the causality is exactly the opposite; I believe that the country’s economic and social success has propelled authoritarianism. To be clear, I think that the clear and impressive economic and social success of Bangladesh is a cause of the clear direction it has taken toward authoritarianism. This may not be unique as there appear to be other Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia (not China), that have grown more authoritarian as they have prospered economically and made serious social progress. And while authoritarians will argue the causality runs from the political direction to the economic and social success, I believe that is open to questions because it looks to me as if the chronology runs the other way; economic success seems to have begun earlier than the authoritarian urge. Although I do not know enough about these other countries to be sure that the causality may have also worked that way, I do know enough about Bangladesh chronology and history to strongly believe that is true.

Bangladesh has followed a very circular path since achieving its independence in 1971 from Pakistan after a very dirty war which took many lives and left the country impoverished and shattered economically as well as psychologically. Despite a very shaky start, which saw military coups d’etat in 1975, some of the seeds of the future economic success were planted in the very late 1970s and early 1980s, most importantly the idea and very early beginnings of what has become its world class garment export industry. (Let me say here that this period was in many ways nasty and brutish, but fortunately for Bangladesh it was short. There followed a brief period of consolidation and progress with some creative economic ideas like garment exports, which bloomed many years later, before the curtain came down, after the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman and the takeover by General Ershad. This brief period has been erased from history by the present government.)
Democracy came in 1991 with the overthrow of military dictator, General Ershad. The democracy was not very pretty, and its warts and demerits showed clearly at election times. The major parties traded places at each election until the military interregnum of 2006-8, but both parties shone in a purer light on economic policy, both led by superb Finance Ministers who laid the foundations for a development oriented economic policy that worked.

Their accomplishments are well known: extreme poverty, 44% of the population at independence, has been reduced by 2/3; per capita income in current dollars has increased by 3.5 times and by 6 times in nominal terms over 30 years. In the 5 years preceding the Pandemic, GDP growth averaged over 7%. In terms of national income, the $953 billion valued by PPP rank it at 31st largest in the world, at the level of Malaysia, South Africa, or the UAE. As to social development indicators, primary education is almost universal with full gender parity, life expectancy is 73, infant mortality is at middle-income countries’ level (better than India and Pakistan, as well as more affluent developing countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, and South Africa).
Bangladesh’s drift toward authoritarianism began in 2008, and evolved slowly but surely, cautiously but steadily, under the Awami League Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It has not culminated yet but may have reached its apotheosis with a clearly stolen election2018. What prevented either party crossing the line to authoritarianism between 1991 and 2008 was the addition of the so-called Caretaker Amendment to the constitution in 1996, which required a neutral caretaker government to be in office for 90 days and run general elections.
Ironically, this amendment had been insisted on by Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League, who were in opposition after the surprise electoral victory of the opposition BNP in the 1991 election. She understood Bangladesh politics well enough to know she would not ever win an election without it because the government would rig the election. With that amendment in the constitution, she won the 2006 election but not by enough to change the constitution.

In 2008, she won again, with a majority large enough to remove the caretaker amendment and thus never lose an election again. But in 2018, in some fit of anxiety, fearing perhaps that rigging would not be enough, she resorted to what really was a coup, by sending her acolytes with the police to seize the polling places and stuff the ballot boxes the night before the election. An ironic similarity between her and Dolnald Trump, is that she would not accept losing the1991 election and not long after the new BNP government took office, started a campaign of street violence to thwart the new government and force another election. Perhaps it is time to investigate the psychological idiosyncrasies and insecurities that motivate many of authoritarians to seek power so rudely.
I found no mention of Bangladesh in the Applebaum article that set me off on this tack earlier today. But the tale of Bangladesh has been on my mind lately partly because of the irony that we in the US are living in a surreal dream world with a large portion of our population believing the lies of the loser, former president Trump, that he really won the 2020 election, while Bangladeshis live in the real nightmare world in which the 2018 election was truly stolen from the opposition and the nation’s people. Also, I continue to wonder how Bangladesh is able to stay under the radar that endeavors to keep up with the authoritarian surge. Perhaps putting the authoritarian Bangladesh and its leader under the microscope that other authoritarian leaders have been under would help us understand better and resist the tectonic shift in international governance that is taking place right before our eyes.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.