Bangladesh — on the march to authoritarianism?

Politically, Bangladesh has come full circle to the tipping point it faced almost 40 years ago. The election of January 5 brought one-party government back. History tells us that the next likely step is a consolidation of a one-party government into a one-party state. But history does not always determine politics. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and Bangladesh has a way of confounding pundits who predict its future. Remember, for example, that famous 1972 prediction that it would be (forever) ‘a basket case’.

WilliamBMilamThe Awami League (AL) is now totally in charge. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the major opposition party, which polls said would win any free and fair election, even after two rather dismal previous turns in power, chose to boycott the election as it saw certain defeat in the absence of a neutral government to oversee the it. The result was predictable — the AL swept the polls and the BNP is completely shut out.

But politics aside, it is 2014 in Bangladesh. The chronic instability and near-anarchy, as well as the abject poverty that prevailed in 1975, have long since disappeared. Bangladesh, while still poor and in the stage of economic development where gains can easily be reversed, is now wired into the global economy with its vibrant garment and other export industries. Growth has been strong for most of the past two decades, and the country as a whole is much more prosperous. More importantly, it has a much more literate and healthy population because of the strides that have been made in mass education and in reducing gender disparity.

Clearly, this election does not reflect the will of a population far advanced from those early days. The AL claims a turnout of nearly 40 per cent in the 147 (of 300) districts in which voting took place. But neutral observers insist that even including the large-scale ballot-box stuffing at the end of the polling day, reliably reported by neutral observers, the number is no more than 20 per cent. Expert sources tell me the real turnout was likely closer to 12 per cent. In comparison, turnout in previous elections was about 86 per cent in 2008, 74 per cent in 2001, 75 per cent in June 1996 and 55 per cent in 1991.

But history shows that the ruling party of most one-party states started with elections, legitimate or not, which gave them power far beyond their popular support. These parties consolidated their position primarily by picking apart the opposition, putting its leaders in jail or into exile, cracking down with force on enemies and on their protests, co-opting others with the temptation of profiting from a share of the economic rents that come with political power, and quite often finding an ‘enemy of the state’ to justify their authoritarian methods. The AL government began this process before the election, putting a large number of BNP leaders in jail, and has followed up the election with more arrests. Its election campaign was based primarily on the assertion it was the bulwark against an Islamist onslaught — especially by the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) — to turn the country into an Islamic state ruled by Sharia. The same drumbeat continues.

But the bulwark needed is one against a takeover of the state by a party bent on one-party rule. In a democratic system, it would be the next election. But will there be one before the opposition has been decimated? PM Hasina has turned rather coy on the timing of the next election. Will there be an opposition worthy of the name, or will it have been fragmented and effectively destroyed as a political force by the uncertain time of a future election?

This will be a historic challenge for the BNP. Its very existence and the political future of Bangladesh are on the line. Its answer should be to embrace a truly centre-right agenda, a transformational one with emphasis on democratisation and modernisation (rebuilding the independent institutions of the state), secular but inclusive, and which promotes its open and vibrant economy — an agenda that would appeal to the 48 million disenfranchised voters. Begum Zia should jettison the strategic alliance with the JI, but support a court that brings justice for the victims of the 1971 war, with the proviso that it be moved to a neutral country in which the perpetrators of crimes will find true justice. The hard part is that she should forswear dynastic politics — a pledge to democratise the party as well as the country.

-By William B Milam, The Express Tribune, January 14.

(The writer is a Senior Scholar at the WoodrowWilsonCenter in Washington, DC and former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh)