Pathways of Autocratization: The Tumultuous Journey of Bangladeshi Politics

Right to Freedom (R2F), a Washington-based nonprofit, organized a Book Discussion webinar on ‘Pathways of Autocratization: The Tumultuous Journey of Bangladeshi Politics’ on May 3, 2024 (Routledge Publishers). Dr. Ali Riaz, the author and Distinguished Professor of Government and Politics at Illinois State University, outlined the theme of the book which is the interplay of actors and institutions in the transition from democratic to autocratic regimes. Panelists Michael Kugelman, South Asia Director at the Wilson Center, Dr. Sreeradha Datta, Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, and Dr. Ahmed Shafiqul Huque, Professor of Politics at McMaster University, shared insights on broader regional implications, comparing situations in Bangladesh with those in other South Asian countries. They also discussed the role of the opposition, the state of democracy, and how external powers influence political dynamics within these countries. R2F President Ambassador (Ret`d) William B. Milam made welcome remarks while R2F Board Member Jon Danilowicz moderated the webinar. The Executive Director of R2F introduced the author and the panel speakers. Below is the brief summary of the discussion.

Dr. Ali Riaz:

Dr. Ali Riaz: Dr. Riaz provided a comprehensive overview of his book’s themes, focusing on the autocratization process in Bangladesh. He highlighted the inadequacies in the existing literature, which he found too focused on institutional changes, often overlooking the ideological shifts and external influences that have played significant roles in Bangladesh’s political regression. He argued that regimes transitioning towards autocracy not only alter their institutional frameworks to consolidate power but also manipulate ideologies to legitimize their authority. Dr. Riaz stressed the importance of understanding the role media plays in these regimes, both as targets of repression and as tools for regime legitimization. Furthermore, he discussed the significant impact of external actors like India and China, suggesting that their geopolitical interests have indirectly supported the erosion of democracy in Bangladesh. Dr. Riaz’s analysis extended beyond local factors, incorporating the complex interplay of global influences that affect Bangladesh’s political landscape.

Michael Kugelman:

Michael Kugelman expanded the discussion by drawing parallels between political developments in Bangladesh and India. He provided insights into the electoral dynamics in India, predicting Narendra Modi’s likely victory in upcoming elections and discussing its implications for both domestic policies and international relations. Kugelman noted the strong media support for Modi and the disarray within the Indian opposition, factors that he compared to the political scene in Bangladesh. He argued that while both countries have seen autocratic tendencies, the context and popularity of the incumbents significantly influence the electoral processes and outcomes. Furthermore, Kugelman discussed the broader regional implications, especially how the United States views India’s and Bangladesh’s political developments, highlighting a perceived inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy towards South Asia, particularly in its handling of democratic backsliding.

Dr. Sreeradha Datta:

Dr. Datta focused on the critical role external actors play in Bangladesh’s political arena, particularly emphasizing the influence of India and China. She questioned the effectiveness of these countries in facilitating democratic corrections in Bangladesh, given their vested interests. Dr. Datta also explored the potential outcomes if external support were withdrawn, suggesting that the current government’s stability might be less secure without such backing. Her analysis critically assessed the lack of a proactive opposition in Bangladesh, highlighting their failure to articulate a clear, alternative vision for the country’s future. This, she argued, contributes to the persistence of the status quo, wherein a single party dominates the political landscape, often at the expense of democratic norms and values.

Dr. Ahmed Shafiqul Huque:

Dr. Huque delved into the broader concept of autocratization, comparing Bangladesh’s situation with global trends where similar processes are observable. He discussed how autocratic leaders manipulate political systems to their advantage, often at the cost of democratic integrity and civil liberties. Dr. Huque criticized the role of the military and bureaucratic elites in Bangladesh, who often align with autocratic regimes for personal or institutional gain. He highlighted the challenges faced by civil society in such environments, where repressive measures stifle dissent and limit the scope for democratic engagement. Dr. Huque’s remarks underscored the complex interdependencies between various state apparatuses and the autocratic regimes, illustrating the multifaceted challenges to reversing such trends.

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