Future political scenario
Bangladesh has experienced a long political journey of forty two years and during this period it had been ruled by several different political regimes (Mujib, Zia, Sattar, Ershad, Khaleda and Hasina regimes). During this period, sometimes broadly acceptable democratic regimes and sometimes non-democratic regimes ranging from pure military regime to either civilian supported military regime or military backed civilian regime or a temporary caretaker regime based on democratic consensus had ruled the country.
The period under discussion can be divided into three sub-periods -- 1971 to 1975 and post-1990 up to now -- and can be classified as a period of “broadly democratic regimes.” From 1975 to 1990, the country was under the rule of an elected or non-elected army chief. Today, in 2013, we are again facing a huge national turmoil around the issue of transfer of power. Two questions haunting the minds of all citizens now are: Who is going to succeed the current Hasina regime and how is it going to be done?
The set answer of the current regime to these questions is: “Everything will be done as per the revised constitution of the country.” But the existing constitutional rules and regulations on power transfer process are not acceptable to the main opposition alliance led by Khaleda Zia. She has been waging a tooth and nail struggle to stop the current constitutional process, and her main demand is re-changing of the “changed constitution” for introducing the previous provision of “election under caretaker government.”
The movement of the opposition alliance for the realisation of this change in the constitution has become violent. All kinds of weapons have been used by the opposition forces, especially by their hired hoodlums and the party cadres of the militant fundamentalist organisations, which are partners of the opposition alliance. This has created an unbearable situation all over the country. This so-called “political movement” has already resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent people, especially the poor who had to defy the hartal/oborodh programmes of the opposition alliance in order to earn their daily livelihood. The moot questions are, “at what cost will the opposition be successful and whether this political terrorism will ultimately lead to a state of emergency in the country”?
I think it may be too late now to re-convene the national assembly and change the constitution, since there are at best only thirty to forty days left in hand before which the election must be held, as per the constitution. It is more so because even if Sheikh Hasina agrees to such a constitutional change there will arise the new problem of finding a neutral chief of the caretaker government acceptable to both the party in power and the opposition.
Thus, meeting the main demand of the opposition is perhaps no more feasible now. What the opposition can at best do now is to resume the dialogue behind the veil and suggest some new proposals to make the election mechanism more level, more credible and more acceptable under the given constitutional framework. And then, with the gain of as many concessions as possible, they may decide to participate in the next election. This will give Khaleda Zia a legitimate ground for a future movement if there is any gross anomaly in the election.
I think there will be strong opposition to this kind of rational discourse within the opposition alliance from the militant forces of her party and surely also from the fundamentalists who actually have no stake in the democratic process of the country. So far, these hawks had successfully prevented Khaleda Zia from taking such a rational decision. In the recent past, some old intellectual mentors of the BNP actually did try to persuade Khaleda Zia along this line but failed.
Since it would be an easy sail for the “boat” in an election without the participation of the main opposition, some extremists and unpopular contestants from the ruling party are also trying to close all opportunities of an honourable reconciliation. In this way, at present, there has arisen an unholy consensus against reconciliation among the extremists of both the parties.
The question is, what will happen if the opposition alliance does not participate in the election at all? Then the only option available to the current regime will be to hold the election within the framework of the constitution in as credible a manner as possible. It will then try to do two things: give incentives to as many parties as possible to participate in the coming election, and to ensure the highest possible turn out of voters on election day.
The first strategy of giving incentives will involve an increase in the bargaining power of all the moderate or loyal opposition parties, among which Jatiyo Party led by General Ershad will obviously be the toughest bargainer. Consequences of such a strategy are already visible now. The second strategy of inducing voters to cast their votes will require a guarantee of safety for the voters agreeable to vote in an election without the participation of the opposition alliance. This will need further tightening of the law and order forces. Because of this, emergency has become the talk of the town.
Given these strategies, will the current government be successful in its mission to hold a credible election? I think that, with the help of the army for a certain period along with the help of other law enforcing agencies, the Election Commission may be able to hold the election within the time schedule permitted under the given constitution. But without the main contestant in such an election, the voter turnout will not be very high. The magic number is here “50%.” If the current regime can ensure at least 50% presence of voters, the election will acquire formal or legal legitimacy. This will be more so if the USA, EU, India, China and Russia give a positive opinion or at least remain non-negative on the issue of the legitimacy of the election on the ground of constitutional imperatives.
In that case, the post election regime may enjoy moderate stability, at least in the short run. But given the real correlation of political forces in our society and the exclusionary nature of such an election, the new regime may have to give a fresh election again within a short time. The above hypothetical political scenario is possibly the best possible scenario for the present ruling regime.
The other possibility is that the hartals/oborodhs would become so frequent and so costly that the current regime would have to proclaim “Emergency” rule before the election. If they proclaim the emergency before the election then the election will have to take place under the umbrella of “Emergency” or it will have to be postponed for an indefinite period of time. Either way, the democratic process will again be in a deep crisis. In that case the extra constitutional forces will decide the fate of the future.
The writer is Professor, Department of Economics, Dhaka University.