Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections in January cemented the country’s transition to a “dominant-party” political system. Aided by an opposition boycott on Election Day, the Awami League (AL) extended its 15 years in power with another five-year term, which will soon make Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, the world’s longest continuously serving female head of government in contemporary history. But political dominance comes with risk. Around the world, dominant-party systems often develop common maladies that harm the country’s governance. Ensuring competition across politics, government and the economy can forestall these problems.

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, seen here in her office in Dhaka on June 11, 2023, led her party to its fourth straight electoral victory on January 7. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, seen here in her office in Dhaka on June 11, 2023, led her party to its fourth straight electoral victory on January 7. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)

Bangladesh’s Dominant-Party System

While there is no single definition of a dominant-party system, it can be described as a political system in which a single party dominates politics, parliament, government and policymaking over an extended period of time.

On January 7, Hasina led the AL to its fourth straight victory in parliamentary elections. Although the AL now holds fewer parliamentary seats than it did following the 2018 elections, its political dominance is actually greater.

Fearing the optics created by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) boycott — its second boycott in three general election cycles — the AL allowed its members to run as independents against party-backed candidates, worked to induce BNP members to join the polls and cleared some constituencies of AL candidates to ensure non-AL representation in parliament. 

The resulting campaign saw some genuine competition, particularly between independents and AL-backed candidates, but the contest was more similar to a US intraparty primary than a general election between true competitors. Of the parliament’s 300 seats, the AL won 223 (74% of parliament), its alliance partners won two, the de facto AL-backed Kalyan Party won one and mostly AL-affiliated independents won 62. The Jatiya Party, which threatened to boycott if the AL did not set aside seats for it, is now the official opposition in parliament after winning only 11 of its pre-negotiated 26 constituencies.

The consolidation of Bangladesh’s party system around the AL has been developing for over a decade. The AL’s removal of the caretaker government system in 2011 prompted the BNP to boycott the 2014 elections, leaving no real opposition in parliament. In 2018, the BNP’s alliance joined the elections only to win eight seats amid irregularities. The BNP’s small contingent of elected members resigned four years later, again leaving the parliament without an opposition.

Recognizing the harm that Bangladesh’s opposition-less politics was doing to its international reputation and domestic legitimacy, the AL insisted throughout 2023 that the next parliamentary elections would be free and fair. Citing continuing election malpractice and judicial harassment, the BNP remained unconvinced. The resulting opposition boycott left the AL’s promise untested and solidified the ruling party’s political dominance. While the AL certainly wanted to retain power, the one-sided process and outcome of January’s parliamentary elections, which drew few to the polls, did not provide the uncontested mandate that the ruling party sought.

The Perils of Dominant-Party Systems

What does de facto single-party rule mean for Bangladesh? While unchecked dominance is an ostensibly enviable political position for a ruling party, past and present examples of dominant-party systems around the world illuminate common but not uniform challenges with unresponsive governance, corruption, abuse of authority, clientelism and economic stagnation — but also the function that meaningful competition and freedom in politics, government and the economy serve in blunting these harmful dynamics.

In the absence of political competition, dominant-party systems often struggle to respond to citizens’ needs. A comparative study of hegemonic parties in Africa demonstrates that an institutionalized and strong opposition party within one-party systems promotes good governance because it pushes the dominant party to be responsive to voters’ needs and concerns. Similarly, a study of municipal elections in South Africa shows that in constituencies where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) dominates, it is more likely to leave poor-performing incumbents in place than in areas where it faces serious political competition. Likewise, a historical study of politics in the American South, which has fluctuated between single-party dominance and multiparty competition, shows that periods of robust political competition were linked with greater citizen responsiveness. 

Although the causal evidence is mixed, dominant party systems often have high levels of corruption. Competitive, multiparty democracy provides citizens the ability to sanction corrupt elected officials, while single-party dominance protects incumbents from public rebuke. However, other factors also matter. Evidence from Africa and cross-regional studies suggests that dominant-party systems that retain other democratic norms, such as the rule of law and nonpartisan and responsive civil administration, better control corruption than dominant parties that undermine checks and balances.

While not inevitable, dominant-party systems can slide toward autocracy. For example, the Freedom House ratings for Nicaragua and Turkey have both slipped from “partly free” to “not free” under their current dominant parties. In 17 years under President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, Nicaragua’s politics are now marked by rampant corruption, media harassment and killings and torture of political opponents. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated power since 2012 through constitutional changes and imprisoning opponents. In contrast, internal competition in the ANC is among the factors that has constrained the party’s centralizing tendencies in the absence of a strong external opposition and protected South Africa’s democracy over time.

Dominant-party systems are also prone to clientelism, which is the exchange of goods and services to individuals or small groups for political support. Because the dominant party has a near monopoly on distributable resources and state services, payoffs and denial of services are appealing tactics to recruit voters. But clientelism goes beyond election campaigns. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has developed a multifaceted clientelistic regime that includes business sector kickbacks for contracts, access to state jobs and nurturing private sector allegiance through targeted privatization and deregulation. While clientelism is not always incompatible with democratic processes and outcomes, it can undermine governmental competence, electoral choice, public service delivery and economic efficiency.

Finally, political dominance that stifles freedom and competition typically undermines economic growth over the long run. Cross-national data indicate that prosperity is strongly correlated with economic, political and legal rights that undergird competition. Many successful developmental states, which saw economic growth under dominant parties, showcase the importance of preserving elements of bureaucratic autonomy and political competition. An autonomous and meritocratic bureaucracy was among the key institutional conditions that facilitated growth under Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. Similarly, Singapore’s long-ruling and domineering People’s Action Party has emphasized citizen responsiveness, merit-based civil service and parliamentary dissent while achieving a high-income economy

Bangladesh and the Benefits of Competition

Bangladesh’s dominant-party system shows signs of strain along expected lines. Although public opinion data over the last year indicate high approval of the AL government on a range of policy issues, nearly 90 percent of Bangladeshis cite a large gap between political elites and the people and ordinary citizens complain that members of parliament (MPs) disappear after Election Day. While the AL government has taken steps to address corruption, the problem remains significant. Bangladesh’s middling but declining ranking in democracy indices (Freedom HouseV-Dem, Economist Intelligence Unit) indicates that a base of civic and political freedom remains, but it has been inconsistently protected. Various forms of clientelism persist. Bangladesh’s extraordinary economic and development progress is currently under serious strain and its forthcoming graduation from Least Developed Country status will present real challenges for sustaining growth.

Global examples of similar systems indicate that to prevent these problems from metastasizing, Bangladesh’s dominant-party system needs more competition between and within parties, inside the bureaucracy and in the economy. While the ruling party is primarily responsible for encouraging and protecting competition, the opposition also has a vital role in affirming democratic processes. International actors can also promote positive political, civic and economic engagement.

The ruling party can take steps to improve political and economic competitiveness. The AL and other parties in parliament should emphasize constituent outreach and services and sack underperforming MPs. Although Bangladesh’s longstanding realities of corruption and clientelism will not change overnight, the government should make concerted efforts to punish corrupt officials in its own ranks and emphasize merit-based promotion in the bureaucracy, where policy innovation can occur. For Bangladesh to continue its economic trajectory, greater protections of economic freedom, namely property rights and market access, are needed.

In addition, the AL should work to restore trust in state institutions. The speedy, transparent and fair adjudication of cases against political and civic leaders, which reportedly ballooned by over 20,000 in the months before the elections, can reduce concerns over a politicized judiciary. The new Cyber Security Act, which replaced the widely criticized Digital Security Act, presents an opportunity to demonstrate balance between controlling malevolent misinformation and hate speech while protecting dissent. 

To right-track Bangladesh’s democracy, both the AL and BNP are needed to build productive political competition. Upcoming local elections are an opportunity for the AL to exhibit its commitment to fair electoral processes. The BNP has indicated it will boycott local elections, but the party’s strategy apparently remains flexible. In dominant-party systems, the participation of a strong opposition provides an essential check on government power, incentivizes better policy and is the only route back to a multiparty parliament. Although the AL started Bangladesh’s contemporary norm of parliamentary walkouts and boycotts in the 1990s, a constructive opposition is essential for its democracy moving forward.

Both the AL and BNP should strengthen intraparty democracy. Breaking down traditional decision-making hierarchies can foster ideational competition within the parties that drives new policies and political strategies. Greater competition for nominations can encourage citizen-responsive campaigning and politics among candidates forced to compete for support. Bolstering internal party democracy also empowers women, youth and other marginalized groups to shape a holistic and inclusive party strategy.

International nongovernmental organizations and foreign donors can also support open and competitive politics and economics in Bangladesh. In the political space, interparty dialogues can foster consensual politics, political training workshops can build the skills of new leaders and citizen townhalls can encourage responsive governance. In the civic space, civic and voter education can inspire youth to participate, and organizational capacity-building can help nonstate groups hold parties and elected officials accountable. And in the economic realm, bolstering advocates for labor rights, anti-corruption initiatives and economic freedom can propel sustainable and equitable growth.

The U.S. government and other international actors should continue to voice support for multifaceted forms of competition in Bangladesh, but it is the actions of Bangladesh’s government and political parties that will determine whether the country’s political system retains its democratic character or becomes consumed by the maladies seen in other dominant-party systems. Bangladesh’s democracy is at a perilous moment, but enshrining freedom and competition in civic, political and economic life can revitalize the country’s politics and governance.

Related Publications

What Does Bangladesh’s Upcoming Election Mean for its Foreign Policy?

What Does Bangladesh’s Upcoming Election Mean for its Foreign Policy?

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Bangladesh is getting more international attention for two very different reasons. Domestically, Bangladesh’s tumultuous political situation ahead of the January 7 parliamentary elections has elicited global scrutiny. The United States, through its rhetoric and actions, has led international actors pushing Bangladesh to improve its democratic processes and calling for dialogue to resolve the current political impasse, which has often received harsh retorts from the Awami League (AL) government. Countering Western pressure, Russia and China have condemned U.S. “meddling” while India has called the upcoming polls an “internal matter.”

Type: Analysis

Democracy & GovernanceGlobal Policy

Ahead of Election, Bangladesh’s Political Turmoil Spills into the Streets

Ahead of Election, Bangladesh’s Political Turmoil Spills into the Streets

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

With Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections set for early January, the opposition’s push for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the installation of an interim election-time government has reached its crescendo — sending the country’s streets and politics into tumult in the process. With no sign of political compromise in sight, Bangladesh’s January elections will likely do little to repair its deep political divisions.

Type: Analysis

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications