Bangladesh on the Brink

Unrest sweeps Dhaka after disputed elections, but Bangladesh’s problems extend much farther from the ballot box. Also sparking the flames of turmoil are a stagnant economy, authoritarian rule, and weak governance

The recent political turbulence sweeping Bangladesh has cost more than 100 lives since January and job strikes have brought near standstill to Dhaka, the country’s capital and economic nerve center. Stretching back to independence, the country’s divorce with Pakistan has left a trail of political instability resulting from frequent military interventions, high-profile political assassinations and a dysfunctional democratic order that revolves around two political parties. Atop these bipolar camps are two women known as the Begums the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. The former is the daughter of the country’s founder and national hero Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, and the latter the widow of the first military ruler Gen Zia ur Rehman, who was popular with the conservative sections of society.

From these parties, politicians, and their resulting governance has flowed a degree of political instability in the country. The recent round of turbulence started with the disputed elections of January 2014 that was held amidst an opposition boycott. This put a question mark on the credibility of the contest. The opposition, notably the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), had demanded a neutral interim administration that could oversee the elections. Hasina refused to budge and proceeded with a one-sided electoral exercise that clearly brought her back into power for another term.

Sliding From Elections to Turmoil

On January 5, the date coinciding with the first anniversary of 2014 elections, the opposition called for countrywide demonstrations under the slogan Murder of Democracy Day. The government responded with an iron hand by arresting members of the opposition parties and banning the demonstrations. In reaction, the opposition called for an indefinite blockade of road and railways leading to Dhaka. The demonstrations by the opposition and counter-demonstrations by the ruling AL party have since continued and many have turned violent. The government confined Zia for more than two weeks and accelerated the prosecution of corruption charges against the opposition leader. Members of the JeI have also been pressurized through pending court cases for the party’s support to Pakistan during the 1971 War of Liberation. Since January, 7000 opposition activists and supporters have been detained by the police. More than 100 people have lost their lives during street battles, arson attacks, and bombing of the buses while 20 opposition supporters allegedly died through extra-judicial methods.

Civil society in Bangladesh is deeply worried. The last time such a political deadlock happened was in 2007 when the military intervened. Nurul Amin, a political analyst at North South University in Dhaka, says the hardliners in both camps think no compromise is possible. Similarly, Citizens for Good Governance say the two leaders are acting aspartisan authoritarians, who are dividing the country into two warring camps. Human Rights Watch has also expressed concern, saying violent crimes being committed by some members of the opposition cannot justify killings, injuries, and wrongful arrests by the government.

Economic  and Government Woes

In the midst of this political turbulence, Bangladesh’s economy has been rocked with a communications blockade, urban violence, and a prevailing sense of uncertainty in the country. The hardest hit is the $24 billion a year ready-made garments industry. The supply chain of the industry has been disrupted. The Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) maintains that the garments industry has already incurred a loss of over $3.9 billion while the retail sector may have suffered losses to the tune of $2.1 billion. The agriculture sector of the country has also been affected to the tune of $533 million in recent weeks as farmers are not able to move their products to the cities due to the blockades. Moody’s downgraded the country’s credit rating because of the ongoing political violence. The economic gains made by the country run the risk of being partially lost if political instability continues . The Asian Development Bank has also warned that the political unrest is likely to impede growth and convert the current account into a small deficit. Shutting down transportation in the past few months has hindered private investment and export activity as well.

Despite economic growth over the past two decades and improved social development indices, state governance is also in turmoil and remains authoritarian, dynastic and personality-driven. Naturally, the result is the undermining of key democratic institutions such as the Parliament and the Supreme Court. The opposition alleges the court has also been filled with AL loyalists in the past six years. The truth is that both AL and BNP have packed the state machinery with their loyalists and thereby are creating partisan factions within the bureaucracy. Bangladesh needs serious political and governance reforms, and it needs to institute new measures for neutral elections. The earlier constitutional provision that mandated a caretaker administration was reversed by the present government.

What’s Next?

The U.S. State Department last month expressed concern at the use of violence for political objectives in the country. Bangladesh’s political system is hostage to two ego-driven leaders and their large bands of supporters. Another key player, the military chooses to silently watch the ensuing developments without intervention. Under Hasina’s first tenure, the constitution was secularized and a large number of Army officials were tried. Not unlike Pakistan, the military has the capacity to make a comeback.

The patterns of political violence in the country are obvious. Such standoffs usually take place before the elections, but in the current scenario the wave of violence has crossed the line and now threatens the larger political system. Hasina recently accused Zia of wanting to return to power with military assistance. But she categorically ruled out a military intervention. On the other hand, the opposition accuses Hasina of giving the military an opportunity to intervene by adopting violent tactics. The only option before the government is to launch political dialogue and arrive at an agreement with the opposition. India, closely allied with the ruling party, also needs to advise Dhaka to seek political accommodation with the opposition. Otherwise a systemic breakdown not unlike 2006 remains a possibility. The European Union, a major trade partner, also has some leverage to tell the authorities in Dhaka that street battles must be replaced by negotiations between the political players. In the absence of these or other political steps away from the status quo, Bangladesh will remain on the brink of political instability.

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