What next, Bangladesh?

Bangladesh-FlagThe election held last Sunday is controversial. The government and the election commission claim 40 percent of the voters took part in spite of opposition boycott, and that the election hence must be considered legitimate. The prime minister has hinted at the possibility of an early re-election if an agreement is reached with the opposition, but other leaders of the government party have stated that the parliament will sit its full five year period.

The opposition claim the election was not only deeply flawed with half the seats won by default because of the opposition boycott, but also that it was illegal and unconstitutional because elections should be held under the supervision of a neutral caretaker government as in the past. Also the UN and other foreign observers have made unhappy noises.

There are two ways of looking at what has happened. First, from a democratic point of view:

The government and the leading party, the Awami League, are clearly pursuing a ‘minus one formula’. A few years ago, a military backed government tried to send both main political leaders of the country into exile, a strategy popularly termed ‘the minus two formula’ but one that failed. What has happened with the present election is that the Awami League is poised to continue in power for another full term, which means that by the next election they will have been in power for full ten years. The BNP does not have the ideological foundation that the Awami League has. Both Awami League and the BNP depend on access to state power and the possibility to distribute state patronage in order to survive as political parties, only the BNP much more so than the Awami League. Without power for a full ten years the BNP will approach a near-death. In other words, success for the ‘minus one formula’.

In the meantime, and the signs are already there, there is reason to be fearful of certain autocratic tendencies with the Awami League. It has curtailed the anti-corruption commission. It is using the police and the courts for partisan purposes, such as it did when confining Khaleda Zia to her house and Ershad to a hospital, and when it stopped all public transportation in order to prevent the opposition’s ‘march for democracy’. The Awami League also fielded several candidates with an unsavoury past for this election, such as Shamim Osman of Narayanganj, for instance.

For democracy as a model of government, the continued position of the Awami League is not ideal.

From a political analyst’s point of view, then: When BNP was in power in 1996, it tried to manipulate the election so as to continue in power. A phoney election boycotted by the opposition was followed by widespread protests that led to a second election that same year. When BNP was in power in 2006, it again tried to manipulate the election. This it did by changing the laws regarding the caretaker government that was to oversee the election. Massive protests finally lead the military to initiate a civilian coup. However, when Awami League was in government in 2001, power was peacefully handed over to the caretaker government and an election organised that the Awami League lost.

In other words, there is no particular reason to feel sorry for the BNP. They have tried twice to manipulate the government apparatus in order to win the election. They just failed. The Awami League has proven itself better at a game the BNP also plays.

In this perspective the rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP has been the decade long rivalry between two factions of Bangladeshi society. This rivalry may have come to an end.

But only for the moment. One faction of society has now won a substantial strategic victory over the other in their long series of battles and skirmishes over unclear lines. The two factions of society are in many ways similar, both being the same motley crew of businessmen, ambitious local leaders, honest politicians, activists and supporters from the same social classes. There are some differences in ideology and history, but these are easily overstated. There are for instance few in the BNP who do not share the ideology of secularism and independence, and there are many in the Awami League who might as well have been in the BNP or even in Jamat. At a basic level the two are similar. At a basic level they both depend on access to state patronage for survival. Now one faction has proven cleverer at this than the other. But in a world of ambition and rivalry over scarce resources, there will be fractures within the winning faction and there will be defections from the losing faction. Those who are in will not be able to keep everybody happy, not even a majority.

In this perspective, nothing has really changed and there is every reason to believe that the rivalry will continue, although one group will have to lick its wounds for a long time.

So what will happen next? There are two main scenarios. One is that the government and the Awami League will continue in power for a long time, possibly for five years. The BNP is severely weakened but has two tools it may choose to use. One is the Jamat. Although the BNP is organisationally weak, the support from Jamat with its activist cadre will make it possible to be a continued nuisance for the government. Severe political turmoil in the weeks and months ahead may force the government into some form of negotiations. The government will try its best to curtail such unrest, but may in the end not be entirely successful.

Another tool is the dubious legitimacy of the new parliament and hence of the government. Foreign powers with democratic pretentions will find it slightly awkward to continue the same kind of cooperation as until now. That the UN has expressed reservations is serious, in particular because the Bangladesh army is so keen on its UN missions and also because development cooperation is important to the continued economic growth of the country. So far, however, no foreign power has uttered the word ‘sanctions’ and there is so far reason for the government to regard this possibility with some ease. Many members of Bangladesh’ thriving civil society, including the media, are also upset at the way things have been handled by the government. But the civil society is also divided in this respect and probably not much to be feared.

The BNP has a razor’s edge to balance on. If it leans too much on foreigners to intervene, it will lose legitimacy among many of its anti-Indian voters. If it leans too much on the Islamists in Jamat it will lose foreign support and much popular support. Jamat is also not necessarily easy to please. Opinions within the party seem divided at the moment, with reports of the party leader and the second-in-command, her son, holding slightly differing views on whether to approach the government for talks or not.

It is likely that protests will continue for a while. The BNP is in a tough corner but will not take a defeat laying down. However, in the end, circumstances will force it to consider alternative strategies.

Arild Engelsen Ruud, IKOS, UiO

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