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Five scenarios for Bangladesh

  • Published at 06:03 pm February 23rd, 2015
Five scenarios for Bangladesh

It is difficult to predict the future. Or so it is said. But as a thought experiment, looking into the future may still be valuable, as it could give us an opportunity to understand where we are heading.

Four years down the line there will be another parliamentary election according to the constitution. Given the situation today, with its ongoing conflict and no solution in sight, what is the situation going to look like at that point?

The Islamist scenario

One scenario is that the Islamists have been provoked out of their current stupor and thrown themselves with full force and rhetoric into a battle against the secular and progressive forces of the country.

There are two possible ways in which this may happen. One is that the government pursues its policy of crushing the BNP to the extent that the Islamists come to see themselves as the next target. If the Islamists feel threatened, as a party, they have vast resources and dedicated cadres that they may choose to exploit in order to create a diversion, to weaken the government. Bombs, protests, hartals. A situation of perpetual unrest may follow, and the country may see increased terrorism inspired and funded by fundamentalist movements in the Middle East.

Another route to the same situation is that the government is unable to crush the BNP or to stop the unrest. Such continued unrest will constitute a blow to the government’s image and to the economy. And when your popularity is floundering or you face a revolt of increased dissatisfaction within your own circles, what better than to raise a common enemy, one that can rally friends and allies to your colours?

The Islamists will provide the ogre because their particular interpretation of Islam is anathema to most Bangladeshi Muslims. The government can easily provoke the Islamists in so many ways. If their assets are frozen, their businesses closed, or more war criminals hanged, Islamists could easily be provoked into actions that will help the government rally support.

The Jatiya Party scenario

The Jatiya Party is easily dismissed by many, but this is often done a little hastily. The Jatiya Party has many intelligent second-layer leaders who are poised to take over when nature takes its toll on the upper rung of the party leadership. Besides, JaPa has that unique quality of both intelligent (second rung) leaders and a reasonably solid understanding of how grassroots politics works.

The Awami League and the BNP also have this combination; otherwise they would not survive in the highly competitive Bangladeshi political environment. The parties that do not have this blend of qualities are the other small members of the country’s party flora – Gono Forum or Bikalpa Dhara, for instance. Their lack of grassroots organisation make them irrelevant.

The Jatiya Party is poised to reap a great advantage if the situation develops in the following manner: The BNP continues its policy of oborodh and hartals, with less and less effect, and rapidly loses support and activists. Many will end up in jail or go into hiding, others will jump ship – to the Awami League or to the JaPa. This is not an unlikely scenario.

The situation right now is that the government has many tools at its disposal and few reasons to compromise. There is a good chance that the government will organise an election in 2019 and that there will be no caretaker government. The BNP will oppose the election – how can they do otherwise? – and the Awami League will win again. Another five years in the valley of shadows is not a prospect that will go down well with BNP workers, leaders, or activists. Many of them have seen that for a long time.

The problem is that the Awami League is not welcoming for them. The open arms of an opposition party, that can lay its hands on at least some government powers, will look very tempting. The JaPa may be that party, and provided that the leadership of JaPa knows how to play the situation, it may well be ready to harvest a great many dissatisfied BNP voters and activists.

With a withered BNP, the Jatiya Party can take over whole sections with leaders and supporters and emerge as the real opposition party.

The army scenario

If the BNP with its hartals and oborodhs proves to be less easily stopped than the government hopes, the situation may deteriorate quite considerably. In particular, if the Islamists at some point decide to throw their fat into the pan. If a civil war-like situation arises and the economy suffers horribly, the army may decide to take over.

However, the situation was much worse in the winter of 2006/2007, when the army last took over, than it is now. And that was not a happy experiment. The army will surely remember that even if the take-over was initially quite popular, that popularity vanished rapidly.

The experience proved that ruling a country is difficult. So the decision to push the government over and take power again will not be taken lightly. It will only be accepted if the violence and boycotts have a significantly negative long-term impact on the economy. Or in the case of an Islamist threat.

Also, there is the question of what to do with power once it is taken. The minus-two formula will have to be resuscitated – otherwise, why take power? – but any serious plan to reshape the political landscape of Bangladesh involves holding on to power for years.

The BNP may welcome such a move by the army, but only for a while, and the Awami League would certainly not appreciate it. Chances are that the coup will set off violent reactions, and foreign displeasure will make it difficult to keep the economy going. After a short while, public dissatisfaction may also become unmanageable.

If it takes power to prevent this situation from happening, once the army has seized power, they might opt for very severe and suppressive measures in order to prevent any display of opposition.

The autocrat scenario

In this scenario, the BNP exhausts its resources in an unequal battle with the government-controlling Awami League, and the Awami League is left victorious on the field. Now, the Awami League is wedded to democracy. Its whole heritage and history is about democracy and the people’s right to rule.

However, the AL also has strong autocratic tendencies in the sense that it will tend to interpret democracy as the right to vote and not in terms of respect for the opposition or the rule of law. Many (not all) in the Awami League do not quite understand how anyone but Awami League can rule their beloved Bangladesh.

The Awami League will want the BNP to survive as an organisation, because it is a useful proof of democracy. So Khaleda Zia is safe.

But the BNP will not be allowed to go back into power. In order to make sure that the BNP does not gain power, the Awami League will continue its encroachment on the government machinery and the politicisation of the state. The judiciary is already highly politicised, and so is the bureaucracy, including the local levels, and the army.

Increasingly, the Awami League will have a finger in the pie in the media world – withholding licenses, warning editors, asking them to appear in court. And in civil society organisations, in particular those that refuse to tow the line.

Again, licenses are useful, police investigations, court cases, and many other kinds of pressure. Other would-be independent institutions such as the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission are clearly under the government’s rule as it is. Laws forbidding locals in the Hill Tracts from talking to foreigners without a government representative present are also indicative of autocratic tendencies.

By the time the next election will be held, the BNP will be too weak to represent a credible alternative and years of rhetoric will prevent it from taking part in an election under Sheikh Hasina. The government’s grip on civil society will prevent any third voice from being heard, except perhaps in polite English-language newspapers read in the embassies.

The trigger scenario

The situation today is stuck on “No Solution Visible. “However, a trigger situation may force both parties to the negotiation table, or will convince them that to do so will not constitute a climb-down.

Such triggers may come in any shape or form – from national disasters (floods, acts of terrorism, a foreign threat) to attractive new opportunities.

There are small triggers and big triggers. The death of Koko could have been such a small trigger – a new opportunity. Though, it was not to be. Another possible small trigger is the upcoming city corporation election in Dhaka. The election may constitute an opportunity that may end the stand-off.

The BNP has previously taken part in city corporation elections, under an Awami League government, in the spring of 2013. If it chooses to do so, it may consider calling off the oborodhs and hartals for the sake of the election. There are many in the BNP who are thirsty for influence over public budgets, and the DCCs will certainly provide opportunities.

The Awami League may have to relinquish the DCCs to the BNP just in order to show how democratic it is. However, the BNP may choose otherwise. It may choose to point out that the moment when it could still trust the government to conduct a fair election is long gone.

Even if a small trigger helps the BNP to call off the oborodhs and hartals, the situation will only return to what it was after the January 2014 election. There will still be the unresolved issue of the how and when of the next parliamentary election.

A big trigger could force the two parties to the negotiation table to solve the issue, much in the vein of the 1996 situation. But such a big trigger would have to be massive to be effective – an economic meltdown, nearby international unrest, or a natural disaster. These are triggers of a magnitude one would not hope for.

So then?

What is likely to happen? The different scenarios are not exclusive. An autocratic government may exist alongside a flourishing Jatiya Party, and both may well happen even if a trigger situation arises and convinces the BNP to take part in the DCC election. What is unlikely to happen and not considered here as a scenario, is that the BNP is successful in its current strategy – using oborodh and hartal as the sole weapon to force the government to change the constitution and call a fresh election. 

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