BANGLADESH: Sheikh Hasina

I mentioned yesterday that a lot of credit for Bangladesh’s recent economic and social improvements has been given to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She first served as PM from 1996-2001, and then returned to power in 2009, and is currently on her fourth term. She is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujib, who was assassinated in a coup shortly after Bangladesh’s independence. Currently, Sheikh Hasina is the longest-serving elected female head of government anywhere in the world.

She has been both praised for stable leadership and improving standards of living and criticized for democratic backsliding – she has been accused of graft and suppressing opposition, particularly Islamist groups. Bangladeshi elections have also been marred by violence, and corruption and political influence run deep. Still, there’s multiparty elections, and a vigorous press. Hasina has also survived assassination attempts, jail, and led the country back to parliamentary democracy after Bangladesh suffered a major constitutional crisis and was under a military caretaker government.

Here’s a good interview with her from DW, the German public broadcaster. It’s not a softball interview either; the narrative she sticks to is one of the larger improvements to social indicators, the rights of women, reduction in poverty, economic growth, while she is challenged on her strong hand on the opposition and on freedom of expression.

As an aside, despite being very male-dominated countries and still all scoring objectively low on gender equality, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India all have a tradition of very powerful female leaders. In Canada, we’ve only had a female Prime Minister for a few short months back in the 90s (and she lost her first election), but South Asia has a long string of electorally successful women.

With Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as leaders of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, the Prime Ministership has been held by one of these two women since the early 90s (they’ve also both spent time in jail when not in office). Famously, there’s also Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Indira Gandhi of India – though there’s a common element of all these women share: they’re part of larger political family dynasties in each country. That being said, none of them can be called figureheads – they all have the power (and controversy) that comes from real political leadership.

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