Can we expect a change in the way the country is governed?
In another two months or so Bangladesh is expected to have its next parliamentary elections. The winds are at least that way, although the noise level is somewhat less than what one would expect so close to elections.
Several factors may explain these, notably among which are the incarceration of Khaleda Zia, the inability of BNP to rouse up a noisy opposition like last time, and a general apathy within the populace.
It is not certain if BNP’s relative lack of enthusiasm is coming from continued incarceration of its chairperson, or from a complete collapse of leadership as a result thereof. But it is certain that the ruling party will take full advantage of this “managed leadership vacuum” in opposition and having the elections with or without them.
The government has expressed time and again a desire to hold a fair and transparent election, probably not wanting a repeat of the no-show elections of 2015. BNP, which is still smarting from the wounds of 2015, may want to return to the game, although it is still showing no signs of doing so. But eventually it may, since an abstention this time, on grounds of the party chairperson’s incarceration, may seal its political future.
Barring a nationwide movement for either the release of the chairperson from jail or a popular movement for a neutral government to hold the next elections (which is highly unlikely), BNP will have to participate in the elections one way or another. The straightforward way will be for the party to field candidates right away regardless of whether Khaleda Zia is out on bail or not.
The other, more surreptitious way will be for the aspiring party members to break away and form a rebel group and participate in the elections. I think the government may be comfortable with the second scenario, but it can live with the first, since it will provide the needed credibility to the elections.
But here are the challenges.
The government wants elections, but on its own terms: The elections will be under the watch and supervision of the current government, the Election Commission that it set up will hold the elections, and of course there will be no let up on the court actions against the main opposition leader. In other words, if the opposition BNP wants to participate in the elections, it will have to do so under these terms.
BNP’s stated position has so far been that absent a neutral caretaker government, and a reconstituted Election Commission with transparent neutrality, it will abstain from any parliamentary election. This position has been further deepened with conviction and incarceration of Khaleda Zia.
There does not seem to be any move from this position of BNP, at least up until now. With statements repeated over time BNP seemed inflexible so far, even though the ad hoc leadership of the party seems reluctant to take this stand to the street and test public support for its position.
So far, the BNP seems to be satisfied with vocal remonstrances even though its leader remains behind bars, and other party stalwarts continue to face court cases against them of one kind or another.
The paradox lies in the government’s public statements to hold free and fair elections and the absence of any tangible effort to create a credible environment for holding fair elections. How can we assure the electorate of a free and fair election when ruling party leaders not only ridicule opposition demands, but also take steps to intimidate anyone who criticizes the government for its actions?
How can the public be assured that individuals who dare to oppose the government in coming elections will not be subject to cooked up charges that may include plotting against the state, as has happened to some prominent individuals recently?
These doubts are exacerbated when extra-legal activities (read acts of violence) thrive in the country with impunity, people disappear for no reason and cannot be traced for days, and affected parties get no redress from law enforcement agencies.
Doubts about having a fair and transparent election environment in the country are further entrenched in people’s minds when elements which encourage and promote intimidation tactics thrive under the patronage of certain political leaders.
However, despite the grim political environment of the upcoming elections, the government is bound to hold these for its continuity, for at least another term (party enthusiasts talk about even more), if nothing else. At the same time the government is conscious that the elections will be watched internationally. That is why it will try to make it as participatory as it can but manage the outcome adroitly.
To do this, there will be some carrots held out to the opposition, and no one can say what they will be.
They could be assurances of a certain number of parliamentary seats, places in the future cabinet, or other pecuniary benefits. Absent among these will be any promise to the constituents of much needed changes to improve the state of governance in the country that has been on a downward slope for the last two decades.
Twelve years ago, a commission on governance jointly funded by the World Bank and the Bangladesh government published a report on the state of governance in the country. The report used several indicators to assess the government’s performance and recommended measures to improve in those areas.
Principal areas where the country had a very low level of performance were rule of law, government effectiveness, and most importantly, control of corruption. Sadly, the reforms never came. Not only have there been no changes in last 12 years, the situation has only worsened in all the areas that the report had identified.
The next two months will unfold the real scenario in which the elections will be held. Whether BNP participates or not, the elections will be observed by the international community, because it has a stake in its development. The government may hope for an outcome that it wants, and may even actually get it. It may even not care how the international community views these elections.
But we have to bear in mind that these elections are for giving the people their rights to express what they expect from their government. So, even if the outcome is one where we see a return of the same people to government, at least, can we not expect that they will change the way the country is governed in the coming years?
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.