The moral high ground may not be high enough

The zero-sum nature of Bangladesh politics makes for a very shaky moral high ground

The moral high ground may not be high enough
Did the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) win the Pascalian wager it made when it decided to return to “normal” politics in Bangladesh and back candidates in the April 28 mayoral elections in Dhaka and Chittagong? The answer depends on how you look at it. Having made the wager, the party has no choice to believe it won the bet despite the fact that it chose to declare a boycott of the election halfway through election day. However, given the now-widely-held view that the election was a farce, it may be justified in believing it made the right choice.

The BNP gambled that by opting for “normal politics,” it might lose the elections, but would restore its credibility a political alternative to the AL. In fact, not only did it lose nothing in the end, but it may have recaptured the narrative that dominates Bangladesh politics. That narrative now centers on the election itself – the massive vote rigging, intimidation, and violence by Awami League supporters with the clear help of the government through its police, who are supposed to enforce the law, and through its election officials, who are supposed to administer elections even handedly.

The anecdotal evidence of an election that was stolen before it took place is overwhelming in its assignment of culpability to the AL one-party government. Polling stations were kept closed and voters were told the voting was over when they appeared to vote. I know of voters, who when they appeared at open polling places, were handed a ballot already marked for the government candidate and told to drop it in the ballot box. The poll officials tried to intimidate other voters into dropping marked ballots into the ballot box. Many polling places were kept closed while the ballot boxes were stuffed by AL party workers, or party thugs. The complete list of egregious and illegal actions would go to the end of this article, but this sample should give the reader a good understanding of how bad the election was.

Some observers (including the USG) condemned the BNP boycott also in their strong statements condemning the election. They meant to be even handed, but the facts show that even handedness is not really the point. I think the BNP had no choice but to declare a boycott in the face of what certainly was one of the most blatant fraudulent elections in Bangladesh history. Not boycotting such an obvious fraud would legitimize the fraud. Moreover, as the BNP and its supporters are loudly proclaiming, it now holds the moral high ground in Bangladesh politics. Suddenly, the BNP has become the victimized party. For many months it had been blamed by the public and the government for the serious violence, death and destruction that its resort to blockades and general strikes had caused in its efforts to bring the AL government to heel on the question of a neutral overseer for Bangladesh elections. The BNP can now argue that it was right all along in its assertions that the AL would never permit a genuine election—although one should say that with the caveat that violence is never justified in politics under any circumstances.
The Awami League government in Bangladesh was, once again, its own worst enemy

And, of course, the Awami League (AL) government was again its own worst enemy. It abandoned the moral high ground in its conduct of the elections, and the Prime Minister compounded the government’s action by calling the election “very much fair...a victory of democracy….” Moreover the election undercut the government’s repeated assertions that it can be trusted to hold a genuine democratic election while it has sole control of the Bangladesh government. It has proved that the opposition BNP was right in its assertions that a neutral election overseer is necessary for the level playing field such an election requires. I imagine that the BNP might even try to argue that it was right to boycott the national election of January 2013, but given the different circumstances, I think this would take its newfound virtue a step too far.

For the BNP, this is the time, I suspect, to use any public support that arises from its new position on the moral high ground to renew itself, rebuild its cadres, recharge its intellectual batteries, and remake itself into the right-center political party it should be, the party that commands the loyalty of one third of the electorate. Such was its base before the 2001-2006 embarrassment and the military interregnum the ensued, which its 2006 actions caused. In fact, perhaps the most telling action it could take to solidify public support, and to demonstrate a changing mindset, is to vow publicly never to repeat the mistakes of 2001-2006 when it is returned to power. It could be inferred from such a public vow not just a promise to eschew trying to subvert a neutral election overseer mechanism, but also an intent to shake up its leadership. That might be an interesting contrast to what the AL has done recently and what it is very likely to do when (perhaps that should be “if”) it is faced with reelection.

But the nagging question is whether there is really a moral high ground in Bangladesh politics, and if it makes any difference if there is? The zero-sum nature of Bangladesh politics makes for a very shaky moral high ground, as the tendencies of both parties are to eliminate the other when (if?) they have the other on the run. For the past 18 months, the AL government has been dead set on shutting down the political space for any opposition, finding ways to neutralize, if not, eliminate BNP leadership and its street cadres, as well as opponents in civil society and the media which question its policies and its legitimacy. Its DNA is likely to drive it toward that goal whether the BNP occupies this so-called moral high ground or not. Although there was a roll back in measures to close the opposition’s political space at the beginning of the election period, attacks on Begum Zia’s motorcade in the final 10 days were ominous signs that optimism about returning to normal politics was premature. I have seen no evidence that BNP leaders and advisors are under any less pressure to quit politics than they were a month ago, and the disappeared BNP leaders remain disappeared.

There is at least an equal risk that the BNP will ignore, or forget, how it came to the moral high ground, and revert to its past practices and mindset which emphasize street power and violence to achieve power and to retain it. Is the party capable of seizing the opportunity, perhaps its last chance to break with past habits and move, ever so slightly (I are not so naïve as to wish for anything close to transformation), away from the zero sum political mentality? For Bangladesh to be politically stable, the main parties need to move toward a mindset that understands and accepts that political stability, and in truth continued progress and increased prosperity, depend entirely on both having their turns in power and at the trough of economic rents that accrue to governance? The party that makes that intellectual leap would be making the ultimate Pascalian wager – risking either eternal damnation or eternal life.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.