Good news from Bangladesh?

A third force is in the making in Bangladesh. William Milam is excited about its prospects as the alternative to two unsatisfactory political parties

Good news from Bangladesh?
I like to focus on good news when I can. And there doesn’t seem to be any from Pakistan lately. I can’t say there has been bad news, however, unless one considers the snippets of news that seem to show a new government floundering about and unable to decide a consistent direction of policy. But looking more widely in South Asia, I notice that political actions that promise to be very good news have begun to emanate from the country that is my other great interest and concern in South Asia—Bangladesh. And it has been a long time since we have had any good news about Bangladesh.

I have not written much about Bangladesh in the past 18 months, and the last article was five months ago. There was no good news coming from Bangladesh, at least as far a political development was concerned. Yes, much of the news about the economy was good. Though it is still a poor country, its economy has basically outstripped that of Pakistan. As to politics, Bangladesh was what political scientists call an “electoral democracy,” a country which had free and fair elections and transferred power more or less properly and was moving slowly but surely towards real democracy. As in all countries, whether real democracies or on the path to real democracy, it takes time and serious change in the political culture to achieve the real thing.

The political news from Bangladesh actually turned bad in 2007, when the army took over for two years. Most of us did not notice, or we took it as a blip on the political path the country was on. But that was wrong. The army gave up power voluntarily in 2008 and because the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government had been the cause of the army takeover, the Awami League (AL) won the ensuing election by a large margin. Once in power, with a large parliamentary majority, the AL began to dismantle the fragile democratic norms and understandings that had been constructed over past decade. It signalled its disdain for democracy by using the large majority to remove from the constitution the so-called Caretaker Amendment, which was the basis of Bangladesh’s electoral democracy. This amendment had been added to the 1972 constitution in 2006 at the AL’s insistence when it found it was difficult to win an election in Bangladesh when the other side was in power and had control of all the election apparatus. The amendment provided for a neutral non-party government to take over the reins of power three months before an election and conduct the election. But of course, the caretaker amendment was very inconvenient for the party in power, as the AL learned in 2001, when despite being in power until three months before the election and being able to use some of the levers of power to tilt the election its way, it lost.

Three elections—1991, 1996, and 2001—had been carried out under caretaker governments and all three were judged by foreign observers as free and fair, and the fact that in each the party out of power was elected and the party in power went out, probably proves they were. In Bangladesh, as I have observed is often the case in Pakistan, the party in power has little interest in good governance, and much more interest in the economic rents that accrue to those in governance. The public expresses its opinion of this by turning these governments out of power if the election is more or less honest. With the Caretaker Amendment out of the picture, the AL made sure it did not lose the next election in 2014. And the BNP showed an equal disdain for democracy by boycotting that election. Since it knew it couldn’t win a rigged election, and since the motto of both of the major Bangladesh political parties seems to be “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing” (falsely attributed to Vince Lombardi), the BNP chose not to run in spite of the fact that the polls showed it was very popular and surely could have won a sizeable chunk of seats. But it gambled that a one-sided, one-party election would bring down such opprobrium from the West that the AL government would be forced to rerun the election on its terms. While the West made critical statements, it went right on doing business with Bangladesh, and the BNP was left hanging out there with no protection at all.

Since 2014, the party has been the target of a campaign to eliminate it as a viable political opposition. The BNP has been weakened drastically, and another election is coming, probably in December in which it clearly hasn’t much chance. I, and a few other observers, have written about the AL’s drive to smother democracy and create a one-party state, which is clearly PM Sheikh Hasina’s goal. Since 2014 there has been nothing but bad political news from Bangladesh, accompanied as would be expected by a huge rise in human rights abuses, all aimed at opposition in any form, but Western publics and officials have taken little notice. At the same time, civil society in Bangladesh, once vibrant and very pro-democracy, had experienced a surge into the middle class by those riding the waves of strong economic growth, and as well a growth in the very well off because of the great profits to be made in the ready-made garment industry. These parvenus have been less keen about democracy and more supportive of the AL as they continue to gain from the economic boom.

It has taken me a lot of time and words to get to the good news. But here it is: Bangladeshi civil society and the BNP seem to have awakened to the distinct possibility that the 2018 election is likely to be the last chance to preserve democracy in the country. As a result, Bangladesh newspapers are full of articles reporting on the formation of a political alliance of as many as 20 parties to oppose the AL. This new alliance goes from the left to the right, across the political spectrum, and surprisingly would, hopefully, include a much-diminished BNP, with which the incipient alliance is now talking. Two towering civil society figures, greatly respected and with huge credibility across much of Bangladesh society would lead the new alliance: Kamal Hossain a leader in the first government of Bangladesh (as Law Minister he wrote the 1972 constitution) until he resigned after Sheikh Mujib introduced and promulgated a one-party government and later a leader in the AL until he resigned out of serious disagreement with Sheikh Hasina; and AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury who was one of the early leaders of the BNP and later became president of the country for a short time, who formed his own party about 10 years ago after disagreement with BNP leadership. This just might be that long-awaited third force in Bangladeshi politics, a force that brings together parties that represent the many people who fill the center of the Bangladesh polity and who would be the real losers if Democracy dies in the country. For them, who had a large say in the politics of their country as the swing voters before 2014, a one-party system would be a grievous loss. A third force was talked about in Bangladesh as the alternative to two unsatisfactory political parties, the Al and BNP, but never materialized. Now, if the news reports, and my other sources are correct, it is serious and committed, and finally led by real leaders of society. And it includes an almost completely decimated BNP which would be finished without it. It is not done forming yet, nor has it begun to organize for an election. So, there are surely many things that can pose a threat to its unity and coherence in the next few weeks, but I hope its leaders and member parties, as they come to bumps in the road, never forget the main goal—saving democracy. Nor that this is the best news out of their country for many years.

The author is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh 

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