Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina at a security conference in Munich, Germany, February 18, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum/Tobias Hase
Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina is striking a deft geopolitical balancing act. Photo: AFP Forum / Tobias Hase

Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people, is heading to parliamentary elections by early January. Nestled between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh has actively cooperated with the US in the “war on terror” and offered refuge to more than 650,000 ethnic Rohingya fleeing from neighboring Myanmar.

Amid turmoil, Bangladesh has managed to grow economically, cut poverty and empower women. As the International Monetary Fund framed things this year, “Bangladesh is undergoing a transformation from a low-income to a middle-income economy.”

Yes, rising tides can lift all boats. For starters, economic growth in Bangladesh has averaged more than 6% annually over the past 10 years, and is projected to top 7% this year and next.

Meanwhile, the poverty rate hovers at the 15% mark, down from nearly 45% in 1991 and more than 18% eight years ago. Foreign direct investment ballooned from less than US$750 million in 2008 to more than $1.7 billion in 2017, an increase of more than more than 100%.

So, what’s behind the story? Economists chalk the good news up to consumer spending, increased investment and the expanding role of women in the workplace. In a sense, modernity is peering in and Bangladeshis have gone with the flow.

Moreover, agriculture continues to loosen its grip on the economy. Manufacturing and services are driving the economic uptick. Second only to China in the ready-made clothing market, Bangladesh-made products line the shelves at US shops.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has led the government since 2009. On her watch Bangladesh has endeavored to resist the siren song of religious fundamentalism in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim and home to the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population.

Hasina has paid close attention to educating girls and bringing women into the public square. Public health has also received a boost. Life expectancy in Bangladesh now stands at 72 years, compared with 68 years in India and 66 in Pakistan.

Together with the government, Bangladesh’s non-governmental organizations deserve credit for this. Civic involvement has made a difference. What makes the achievement particularly noteworthy is that Bangladesh spends less per capita than either India or Pakistan.

According to a poll released by the International Republican Institute (IRI), more than three out of five Bangladeshis view their country as headed in the right direction. Nearly seven in 10 respondents give a thumbs-up to the economy. Based on that top line, the prime minister and her Grand Alliance, an amalgam of six political parties, should be favored to win re-election when Bangladeshis go to the polls.

Still, nothing should be taken for granted. Opposition parties will likely contest for parliamentary control in contrast to 2014 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the elections. Further, public satisfaction with democracy appears to have ebbed, according to the IRI.

Despite the country’s rosy economic outlook, this past summer saw student protests across the country. The government got its back up. Meanwhile, overall confidence in democracy has dropped among a populace that has been historically supportive of democracy – having thrown off 16 years of military rule in 1991.

Rising living standards create their own demands for increased freedom, responsiveness, good government and quality of life. According to Freedom House, Bangladesh is counted among the ranks of “partly free” countries, a group that includes Pakistan, Nepal and Malaysia. As a result, whoever wins will be forced to grapple with this reality, and the world will be watching.

The prime minister will make a case for re-election, but the elections will not end demands for liberalization. Freedom has a way of making itself heard.

A lawyer in New York, Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the Middle East Policy Group of George H W Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and served in the US Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992.

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