What does the upcoming election have in store for us?
How will the next eleven months play out in shaping the course of future political history of Bangladesh?
As a social scientist and a political worker, I do not believe in offering prophesies. Hence, I will not waste any ink on saying what exact political outcomes will emerge in the immediate future.
Yet, I will very much pinpoint the multiple paths that we can collectively take and what exactly our political parties need to do to ensure that the best paths are taken. As a result, we are effectively examining political options and the associated probabilities that these options will be chosen.
So, what are the chances that AL and BNP will be able to come to a political consensus regarding the nature of the institutional arrangement that will allow the 12th National Election to be viewed as credible and fair by all parties? Can we just naively expect that such a consensus will automatically appear because it holds the highest dividend for the nation? What exact issues have affected the probability that such consensus seems unlikely, at least, to some?
To offer some insight, it is important to understand what electoral competition actually is. Electoral competition, which evolved in various polities aspiring to harness their respective democratic political fabric, was partly invented because it offered a practical scope to avoid civil war between the competing political factions.
Given the law of averages suggests that parties receiving the most votes will also on average be victories in a possible civil war for power (given they have greater traction with most people), electoral mechanisms were designed to distribute political powers among competing factions without the need of such bloodshed. It also offered a scope for ordinary people to trigger transitions between governments without the need of a revolution.
Yet, electoral mechanisms only function adequately when one broad political condition holds: If the political arena within which parties compete for power do not suffer from the existence of strong zero-sum dynamics, it is only and only then that electoral mechanism offers a civilised solution to the question of who will govern.
Simply put, if parties competing in the electoral process believe that electoral defeat is tantamount to an existential crisis or possible annihilation, then no party will have an incentive to appease to a fair electoral system through which political power can change hands. But how do we avoid such zero-sum dynamics within a given political landscape? And how can one come out of it?
Trust thy opponents
For instance, how did FW de Klerk and the ruling white elites ensure that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress will not order the extinction of whites within South African polity? The process was aided by a simple social institution: Trust.
FW de Klerk with his positive gestures and continuous engagement with Mandela and the African National Congress created an understanding that the bitter political history and the extreme political repression that the black population was subjected to will not shape how a democratic South Africa functions.
This also makes me wonder if BNP’s desire for a level playing field is rooted in its aspiration for a democratic Bangladesh
Thus, elections within a civilised political setting can only function effectively when parties competing for state power abide by the informal institution of trust, which necessitates that each party respects the other parties existential right.
Bangladesh, in that context, started well in 1991 when both the major parties developed a thin thread to tolerate each other’s existence. Yet, that arrangement was fundamentally severed on August 21, 2004 with a heinous grenade attack on then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, which not only tried to assassinate her, but also exterminate a large section of the AL central leadership.
Further, it is prudent to infer that the noted assassination attempt fundamentally affected how political history over the last one and half decade unfolded, as the thin thread of trust between the two dominant parties was deeply severed.
What further amplified the zero-sum dynamics was that BNP undertook a farce investigation to establish that Awami League was the principal organisation behind such attack. Even over the last decade and half, BNP promoted individuals within its leadership who are primarily seen by the ongoing investigation as chief architects of the assassination attempt, which raises grave concern that BNP is not sincere to achieve reconciliation with its arch political rival.
This leads us to our final set of pertinent questions? Why did BNP waste so much time and not address the deep divisions that were sparked by August 21 grenade attack in 2004? Can BNP undertake an out of the box initiative over the next 11 months that can help repair its trust with AL’s leadership? Can we really expect institutional reforms, especially on the electoral front, to aid our democratic progress, if there is an intense zero-sum political equation between AL and BNP?
As the next 11 months get played out, it is necessary that BNP does not waste any more time and repeat the political mistakes that have severed its political trust with AL. More importantly, it must attempt to repair the trust by bringing in sincerity to its political actions that can open some door for reconciliation.
Unfortunately, BNP is not known in contemporary history for its matured political endeavours, and it makes me question BNP’s intention to bridge the deep divisions it has created with AL. This also makes me inquisitive and wonder if BNP’s desire for a level playing field is rooted in its aspiration for a democratic Bangladesh or whether it wants a second chance to annihilate the progressive political elements of our country?
Ashikur Rahman is a Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh.