Bangladesh in Turmoil: A Nation on the Brink?
Bangladeshi politics is once again at the crossroads.
In recent months the situation has taken a violent turn as the opposition organized several general strikes which led to death and destruction and has threatened more in the coming days. The human cost of the violence is rising rapidly. The government, on the other hand, has used excessive force to quell the opposition and resorted to the persecution of opposition leaders. 62
The immediate reason for the current political impasse can be traced back to the 15th amendment of the constitution. The amendment, which passed in June 2011, removed the caretaker government (CTG) provision that had ensured three fair elections since 1996.
The fundamental reasons for introduction of the CTG system were the absence of trust among the political parties, and of strong institutions that can be trusted to hold an acceptable election. While both incumbent and the opposition parties have been in power since 1991, neither has tried to create necessary institutions, nor has the climate of mistrust changed. Equally important, neither the introduction nor the annulment of the system was ever placed before the public for approval. The 14th amendment of the constitution by the BNP regime in 2004, the abuse of the CTG by the President in late 2006, and the overreach of the military-backed CTG in 2007-2008 have contributed to discrediting the system. 115
The ruling party provided two justifications for its decision to abolish the CTG system. First, the verdict of the Supreme Court that the CTG system is 'unconstitutional', and second that the immediate past CTG overstayed and pursued a political agenda. While the government's argument that the 2007-2008 CTG overreached its mandate is well-founded, the argument that it was compelled to abolish it because of the Supreme Court verdict is flawed. The summary of the verdict suggested holding two further elections under the system, and the full text showed that the court was concerned that instability might result if the CGT system was abruptly terminated. The fourteen month delay by the court in providing the full verdict and the reversal of a parliamentary committee's decision by the PM both played a part in creating the current situation. However, public opinion polls since the removal of the system show an overwhelming support for a neutral caretaker government during elections.
The upcoming election is important at both domestic and regional levels with significance for the US- Bangladesh relationship.
Despite transitioning from military rule in 1991, Bangladesh has failed to produce a stable and substantive democratic system; but four inclusive elections have precluded a complete reversal. In the past five years Bangladeshi society has become highly polarized. In recent decades, state power has been used to persecute the opposition. All parties are afraid that this time it will be harsher as authoritarian tendencies have been institutionalized. An election without the participation of all parties will increase the likelihood of violence and instability, and pave the way for a reversal. . Political instability has always affected the security of religious and ethnic minorities. The indications are already evident.
While the volatile political environment has frequently drawn the attention of the world's media to Bangladesh, we should not lose sight of the fact the country has also produced a development success story; both in terms of economic growth and social indicators. Violence and uncertainty will seriously hamper the progress. This will contribute to economic disparity and may serve as a source of radicalization in the future.
The adverse impacts may not stay within the boundaries of the country. This is particularly important because the country has already experienced a variant of Islamist militancy between 2004 and 2007 and a low intensity leftwing radicalism is present. The country is located within an arch of insurgency from Afghanistan to Myanmar with Pakistan and India in between. 125
Understandably security concerns play a key role in the policies of Bangladesh's neighbors, particularly India. The rise of militancy, the presence of some regional militant groups and the use of Bangladesh as a sanctuary by Indian insurgents in the past has caused Indian policy-makers some concerns. The relationship has improved in the past few years. But unfortunately, the Indian government has not reciprocated Bangladeshi goodwill in equal measure. While Bangladeshi political parties must show maturity in dealing with the big neighbor, Indian policy makers should be cognizant of the long term implications of their policies. Political instability in Bangladesh may jeopardize the future relationship.
The US-Bangladesh relationship has flourished in the past decade, as reflected in the two rounds of US-Bangladesh Partnership dialogue, two rounds of Bilateral Defense Dialogue and Military Planning Talks and Bangladesh's agreement to sign TICFA. Bangladesh is a major partner in US global counter-terrorism efforts. But both countries have some reservations about steps taken by the other state; the cancellation of the GSP by the US on the one hand while the Bangladesh government's steps towards the Grameen Bank on the other have created some strains. With the increasing importance of Asia and the Indian Ocean in the global economy and politics, Bangladesh's geo-political importance has grown.
Bangladesh has a potential role in helping Myanmar's slow transition to democracy and integration to the global economy. US strategic interests rely on a stable, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh.
Absence of democracy or prolonged instability will not only be detrimental to economic interests but also destabilize regional dynamics. With imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan and unpredictable relations with Pakistan, the US cannot afford to lose a partner in South Asia. 69
One of the key current issues of Bangladeshi politics is the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Trying the war criminals was an election promise of the AL. Despite some reservations about the trial process, opinion polls have shown that the majority of Bangladeshi citizens support the work of the ICT. Whether it plays a role in the upcoming election or not, the trial of those who perpetrated crimes against humanity in 1971 should continue. This was long overdue. Without dealing with this painful past and delivering justice, the nation won't be able to move forward.
As of today, there are three possible scenarios in regard to the election.
1. A routine election participated in by all parties. However, given the uncompromising positions of the ruling and opposition parties, it is an unlikely scenario. Accommodation of some of the demands of the opposition, perhaps a cabinet not headed by the incumbent PM during the election, is a way out within the current constitutional proviso. Also opposition should be ready to make compromises.
1.2. An election boycotted by the opposition. This scenario is akin to February 1996, when the BNP unilaterally arranged a sham election. Despite apparent similarities between 1996 and 2013, the situation on the ground is different this time around; a few allies of the ruling party will join the election. The legitimacy of such an election is an open question. Such elections do not produce a durable parliament nor bring political stability.
1.3. The deferral of the election. It can be done either within the purview of the current constitution or through extra-constitutional steps to be ratified post-facto by the next parliament. Article 123 (3) (b) stipulates that elections will be held within 90 days after the dissolution of parliament. This window of time can be used to formulate a solution through mediation between the political parties.
Since the CTG issue was never placed before the public for approval; one way out could be a referendum on the issue during the extended period. A general election can follow based on the results of the referendum.
While Bangladeshi political leaders must act responsibly to avoid a political meltdown and impending chaos, it is clearly in the interests of the international community to act.
I recommend that the United States and the International community take the following steps:
1 Instead of focusing on elections every five years as tension escalates, the US should emphasize on the quality of democracy. Concrete action steps should be laid out to be followed by the political parties. For adherence to each step the country should be rewarded with benefits that help the entire population or the most productive sectors of the country, for example restoring the GSP, easing tariff barriers for Bangladeshi products.
12 Building institutions for sustainable and quality democracy such as a strong Election Commission should be the key focus of the international community and commitment for long term engagements is necessary.
13 The United States should make clear statements in regard to the post-election tolerance, including safeguarding the weaker sections of society, e.g., religious minorities, and the results of fall-out.
14 Encourage all parties to agree on containing religious extremism.
15 The international community should neither franchise its responsibilities to regional powers, nor should the regional powers be excluded from this international effort. In particular India's valid security concerns must be addressed. Institutional structures should be created to ensure that domestic political environment in Bangladesh does not threaten its neighbor or the regional security.
The US can take a leading role in bringing the international community together and involve the United Nations to prevent further escalation of the volatile situation.
The present political crisis in Bangladesh can be turned into an opportunity to build a stable democratic prosperous country. Economic and social achievements of recent decades show that the citizens are capable of taking steps in the right direction. It is time for the Bangladeshi political leaders to take the right decisions – to hold an inclusive election, agree on post-election tolerant behavior, rein in extremism, commit to address the issues of war crimes judiciously, and commit to regional peace, and it is time for the international community to help them in this regard.
The writer is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Washington D.C. The article is based on author's written testimony on Bangladesh at the hearing of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives on 20 November 2013.