An Unlikely Comparison: Taiwan and Bangladesh

Sumit Ganguly | 15 Jan 2020

It is unfortunate that scholars of South and East Asia rarely, if ever, find occasion to engage each other's work. This failure to communicate cuts across sub-disciplines ranging from political economy to strategic studies. As a consequence of this lack of interest, they miss important opportunities for comparison and thereby fail to leaven their work from insights that can be derived from careful cross-national comparisons.

During a week-long visit to Taiwan in early January 2007, this issue was brought to the fore in a most dramatic fashion. Sitting in my well-appointed hotel in Taipei, while fending off jet lag, I watched various international news programs report on the unraveling of the national elections in Bangladesh. The principal opposition party, the Awami League (AL) in concert with an agglomeration of other smaller parties had called for a boycott of the elections. Their series of grievances against the Interim Government, responsible for the conduct of the elections, had prompted their call for such a boycott. Most importantly, they believed that the voters' list was entirely partisan and thereby could not contribute to a free and fair election.

The ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and its political allies evinced little or no interest addressing the misgivings of the opposition. The BNP's intransigence was hardly atypical. For years, it had battled charges of rampant corruption at the highest levels, increasing resort to extra-parliamentary tactics including the violent intimidation of opposition leaders and a singular inability to maintain political order. The AL, for its part, had also refused to adhere to one of the most basic norms of democratic conduct, that of a loyal opposition.

At the time of writing, the leader of the Interim Government, President Iajuddin Ahmed, facing widespread charges of partisanship, has resigned and has been replaced by Fakhruddin Ahmed, the former governor of the central bank. In one of his last acts in office, he also promulgated an indefinite "state of emergency" which suspends key sections of the constitution including those that deal with fundamental democratic rights such as speech and assembly. The elections, of course, have been postponed while the new Interim head attempts to address the concerns of the opposition.

Watching these tragic events unfold in Bangladesh from my hotel room in Taiwan underscored a cruel irony. Both Taiwan and Bangladesh owed their genesis to movements that had challenged a far more powerful and ruthless foe in the context of vicious civil wars. Taiwan, as an independent state, had emerged as a consequence of the Kuo-Min-Tang's defeat at the hands of the forces of Mao-Tse-Tung in mainland China.

Bangladesh, in turn, was created when West Pakistani elites had failed to accommodate the legitimate concerns of its more populous eastern wing and had instead chosen to militarily crush a movement for regional autonomy. Bangladesh, following its creation, had made a rocky and uncertain transition to democracy. Sadly, thanks to a legacy of authoritarian rule, anemic institutions and an abject failure of governance, the brief experiment in democracy had come to a close in 1975, a mere four years after its birth.

Taiwan, on the other hand, faced with an existential threat from its nascent state, failed to make a successful transition to democracy until 1996. In the meantime, unlike Bangladesh, it did, with the United States virtually underwriting its security needs, become an East Asian economic powerhouse. Contrary to popular ideological claims, it was expressly not a model of the so-called magic of the marketplace. Instead as the political scientist, Robert Wade, has shown in his cogently-argued book, Governing the Market, it benefited much from considerable market-friendly state intervention.

Long before the Cold War ended, in 1979, Taiwan suffered the ignominy of de-recognition as the United States sought to court the People's Republic of China (PRC) to exploit as a cat's paw against the Soviet Union. The country admirably coped with its new and unique status and continued to prime its economic pump. Democratisation, however, remained a distant goal. The United States, which remained the tacit guarantor of Taiwan's security, did little to prod democratic reforms.

Nevertheless, in 1996 the country managed to make a transition to democracy with its first direct presidential election. Since that time, despite continuing challenges, the country has made considerable strides towards consolidating its democracy. It has a vibrant and free press. Civil and personal liberties are afforded adequate protection, and despite allegations of corruption, both political parties seem to accept the principle of democratic alternation. Today it is hard to visualise a breakdown of Taiwanese democracy except under the most extreme circumstances.

Tragically, the same cannot be said of Bangladesh which managed to restore civilian rule in 1986 after a decade of military rule. The two principal political parties, the AL and the BNP, view each other not as political adversaries but as virtual mortal enemies. Electoral outcomes, whether at the national or local levels, are invariably contested, extra-parliamentary tactics are routine and few institutions are either efficient or efficacious.

Worse still, is its abysmal record of protecting the civil and personal rights of religious minorities, most notably its substantial Hindu population. Attacks against minorities and political dissenters are perpetrated with considerable impunity as an anemic, cowed and overwhelmed judiciary and utterly venal and partisan police forces prove incapable of stemming such violence. Despite modest successes in containing runaway population growth and endemic diseases, the country still remains amongst the poorest in the world.

Despite its long legacy of authoritarian rule, Taiwan's democracy remains robust and will move toward consolidation. What are the principal attributes that explain its ability to bolster its democratic institutions and practices?

Unlike Bangladesh, it had the benefit of strong, viable institutions from the outset. It also followed market-friendly economic policies and made dramatic investments in public primary education. All these factors played a vital role in sustaining democracy once the country managed to make its initial transition. Bangladesh, on the other hand has long operated as a rentier state, has neglected investment in public education and has evinced little interest in strengthening institutional capacity. 

Crucially, its political elites seem to lack any shared sense of national purpose. Unless they can set aside their mindless, internecine and utterly craven political bickering, there is little hope for institutional renewal, sustained economic growth and democratic consolidation in that hapless country. Indeed without sustained international pressure, especially from major donor states, it is most unlikely that the impetus for these much-needed reforms will come from within.

Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the India Studies Institute at Indiana University. 

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