A different Bangladesh Solution?

Governments that don't govern are a recipe for military intervention, revolution, state failure, or all of the above

A different Bangladesh Solution?
I attended a meeting on the future of democracy in Pakistan at another think tank last week at which the “Bangladesh Solution” was mentioned in passing. The speaker mentioned it only in the context of an idea that was bruited about by some critics of PPP government of 2008-2013 who felt let down by its lack of accomplishment. While there are those who believe that the fact that it hung on for the entirety of its 5-year term was a great accomplishment and a turning point in Pakistan history, there are others who thought that the PPP government spent much of its time in a defensive crouch and much of its energy on just staying in office for that five years. That was its only accomplishment, these critics would say, and they believe that governing ought to be about governance, and that getting political parties to govern once in office will require deep reform of the political culture of Pakistan. Some of these critics turned to the idea embodied in the military/civilian government that took over and ran Bangladesh in 2007-2009, which was supposed to bring about a transformation of Bangladesh political culture. This was called the “Bangladesh Solution,” which turned out to be no solution at all.

I wrote an article in this very publication around 2009 or 2010 about that “Bangladesh Solution”on the editor’s suggestion. In it, there was the following conclusion: “the Bangladesh attempt to use the military for radical reform of its political culture must be recognized for what it was—a total failure, probably a counterproductive one, that may have embedded more deeply into the culture the already poisonous politics that continue to place severe constraints on the country’s modernization and potential emergence into middle income status.” In rereading this, I am amazed at my own prophetic prescience.
Bangladesh had no equivalent of the 8th Amendment

But this is about Pakistan, so back to the meeting last week. The same speaker had described the political merry-go-round that characterized the period of electoral politics in Pakistan from 1988 to 1999. The two major parties traded off brief periods in power, each party in power spending much of its energy while in office trying to do damage to the other party, and the party out of power scheming, with the Army or through the President, to bring down the party in power. Neither party had more than a couple of years in office, and neither showed much ability, or interest, in really governing. By the end of their foreshortened terms, the public was usually ready to give the other party a chance to show its mettle, which of course it did not. We know how this ended up—with the Army back in charge pledging to reform a “sham democracy, and with 9 years more of military governance which was, if we didn’t know already, worse, than the alternative.

Being quite familiar with this story, my mind wandered to another parallel with Bangladesh. The two major Bangladeshi political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) actually worked together for the first time ever in 1990 to overthrow the government of President Ershad who had taken power 8 years earlier in a military coup.  Like Musharraf, Ershad had tried to dress his military government in civilian garments, and by clever manipulation of the parties, had survived at least two major uprisings. In 1990, he was forced out and jailed, and a 15-year period of electoral politics ensued, similar in several respects to the 1988-1999 period in Pakistan.


The similarities were that the same zero-sum-game political culture prevailed, and led the party in power to do all it could to gain advantage over the party out of power, and the party out of power to do all it could to bring down the party in power. This focus on staying in power, of course, led to another similarity—neither party had much interest in governing; they used their 5-year terms to extract the economic rents of power (i.e. corruption), to focus on weakening the opposition, and to do everything they could to stay in power. And like Pakistan, the AL and the BNP traded terms of office, primarily because about a third of the voting public with no strong ties to either party, always voted for the party out of power, in the hope that it would actually govern.

The main difference with the 1998-1999 period in Pakistani was that party in power remained there for the entire 5-year term. This was because of another difference: unlike Pakistan, the Bangladesh constitution had no equivalent of the 8th amendment, no provision that allowed the President to dissolve Parliament. This was the tool that, in the 1988-1997 period provided the Pakistani opposition parties, or the Army, or both, the opportunity to connive and throw out sitting governments. Of course, that tool is no longer available.

Despite the violence and instability of politics, which always spiked every 5 years at election time, this 15 year period of revolving governments and no governance was, ironically, also a period of extraordinarily strong economic and social progress in Bangladesh. The country’s GDP has grown annually by about 6 %, over two decades, and its social indicators are significantly better than Pakistan’s. The explanation is fairly simple; there was an implicit social contract in which the governments of either party did their thing (as disruptive as it sometimes seemed) and let the private sector get on with economic growth, and the NGOs get on with social development. That social contract seems to continue to obtain despite the total unraveling of the political system. And Bangladesh was blessed, especially in the early days of this social contract by far- sighted economic leaders who eliminated many of the structural deficiencies inherited from the previous governments.
The army is not interested in governing directly

Pakistan now seems to be moving into a similar period of politics. In a sense, one could liken the two major parties coming together to oust Musharraf to the Bangladesh ousting of Ershad. The major political parties seem also to have an understanding that they must eschew temptations to connive with the military against each other, and have a common front against Army incursions into politics. An additional likeness is that the Pakistan Army does not appear to have much interest in directly governing, being already in the catbird seat and calling the shots on major security and foreign policy issues.

We are now more than halfway through the second term in this present era of electoral politics in Pakistan, with the PML-N government holding on to power but showing not much more interests in governing than did the PPP. To give it some credit, the government has stood firm on terrorism and did see off the religious parties’ protest after the Mumtaz Quadri execution. And it seems it will pass the honor killing bill. But as important as those actions are, it has remained immobile on the deep structural reform Pakistan’s economy needs and on facing up to the social crisis of a broken education system and a burgeoning youth bulge.

Has Pakistan, then, begun another period of empty electoral politics? Will the two major parties (or perhaps a third party or a coalition) continue to trade places in the seats of government every five years, using their respective terms to extract economic rents, but failing to provide any serious governance? Some may say that this is preferable to the alternative (inferentially, I guess, Army rule). But as we have learned from the post-2009 Bangladesh experience, this is not sustainable over the long run. It will not be any more sustainable in Pakistan’s case, probably less. With the country’s serious structural and social deficiencies, governments that don’t govern, that continue to leave reform to the next time, would be a sure recipe for military intervention, revolution, state failure, or all of the above.

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, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

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