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Balancing blame and blunders

  • Published at 06:29 pm July 4th, 2015
Balancing blame and blunders

After the scale of lawless thuggery in the April 28 mayoral elections became clear, the editor of Dhaka Tribune wrote an op-ed arguing that the farcical election proved that the gradually crystallising conventional wisdom is wrong in contending that BNP committed a huge blunder by boycotting the January 5, 2014 elections.

Mr Sobhan said the election underscored that fair elections were only possible under caretaker governments in Bangladesh, the point BNP had been unflaggingly sticking to before and after the January 5 elections. I think, although the editor is right about elections and CTG, conventional wisdom also got it right about BNP’s blunder; and even in BNP circles, that view is now overflowing from private whispers into public expressions. 

I believe that the general people intuitively grasp that BNP’s blunder had little to do with democracy, fair election or caretaker government but everything to do with failing to understand the prevailing political dynamics and pressing home its relative advantage within the very short window of opportunity.

Democracy was never properly institutionalised in Bangladesh and whatsoever electoral democracy that we enjoyed in the last two decades came only because of an equilibrium arising from a domestic balance of power. BNP deserves just as much blame as AL in the upsetting of this equilibrium and in bringing on a flimsily veiled autocracy. The BNP’s best chance to restore the balance was to participate in the January 5 election with the maximum number of favourable terms it could extract from AL and in failing at that, the party committed, perhaps, an irreversible blunder.

Despite the best of intentions of framers of constitution, democracy never got institutionalised in Bangladesh after independence. What are institutions in politics? Douglass North said: “Institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction.” Institutions are persisting rules of game that not only constrain but also structure incentives for human behaviour.

Institution theorists say that institutions are generally endogenous, that is they are broadly generated and determined by the society hosting them. Theorists also say that stable institutions emerge at critical junctures in history and countries often embark on divergent political and economic paths because of these historical contingencies.

When democracy fails to get institutionalised as the rule of the game for the state, it doesn’t necessarily lead to near-anarchical fragile states or authoritarian, absolutist states. Just as realists say that an international system or order emerges out of anarchy through balance of power between states in the international arena, an internal balance of power between different interests generates structure and order within the arena of state, and constrain behavior of the players. State order generated though internal balance rather than institutions is usually dominated by a coalition; the composition of which varies according to the nature of balance. When one interest or group becomes overwhelmingly powerful over other interests, it itself dominates the coalition and makes the order of state somewhat unitary and arbitrary. When there is more balance among multiple interests, the coalition becomes more open, more internally competitive and selective enforcement of the formal rules become the order of the state.

Apart from the major political organisations, among the military, bureaucracy, business and aristocratic elite etc, any powerful interests can be part of the coalition; even foreign powers are part of the internal balance for small countries like us. But the main point is that no one interest can ever absolutely dominate the coalition or state -- there is always some residual power left with other groups. Lastly and more importantly, the society, at large, forms a great balancing mass with respect to dominating the coalition.

Society yields much, but not all; there is always a possibility that society will snap back with violent repercussions and parties, and state-dominating coalitions always keep this at the back of their minds. Resources extracted from society hold and sustain the dominating coalition. The tipping point to more open and democratic order usually takes place when the coalition finds that its closed and arbitrary nature is hindering resource extraction and a more open, competitive and democratic order promises to extract more resource with better efficiency.

Few would contend that immediately after independence, AL had uni-polar superiority in the internal balance of power in Bangladesh. I believe that the new constitution helped more in formalising that superiority than fostering growth of democratic institutions. Even the uni-polar strength proved inadequate for the AL government for establishing control over the state and consolidating state power over the war-ravaged society.

To stem the unspiralling instability, AL made an ill-thought and ill-advised bid for hegemony in the arena of state and society. Here we should clear the distinction between uni-polar power and a hegemon. A uni-polar power commands an overwhelmingly large share of the total resources and capabilities relative to other members. A hegemon is a uni-polar power that uses its capabilities to develop an influence structure that imposes its will upon all others. Rousseau said that in society, “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master.” A hegemon uses its strength to bid for mastery.

Assassinations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions of 1975 not only thwarted AL’s bid for hegemony, but also knocked it off from coalition of dominating interests for many years. For the next decade, Bangladesh army was the uni-polar power in the domestic coalition running the country. The only significant challenges to the military regime came from within -- groups in the military launching coups and counter-coups. But the two traditional political parties also gradually gained strength throughout the 1980s as their support base began to crystallise.

The growing economy steadily increased both the size of the state and the size of elites; many of whom increasingly came to believe that the closed and unitary nature of the dominating coalition is hindering the social and economic growth of the country and a new expanded and competitive coalition would better serve the collective interests of the elites.

I believe that the main dynamics of two decades of state politics in Bangladesh since the fall of the Ershad regime in 1990, is characterised by a tri-partite balance of forces. AL, BNP and the military constituted the three-way balance and no one power-dominated over the other two. We have had competitive elections and increasing empowerment of the civil society because of this balance. The party that captured the seat of government through these elections went on to command a relatively huge share of resources and capabilities, but it did not become powerful enough to completely dominate the other two.

The implied threat presented by combined power of the other two, and the possibility of the combination being blessed with support of our foreign friends, restrained ambitions of domination of the ruling party during critical moments. As a result of this balance we had semblances of democracy propped up like a three-legged stool. But this was not a stable platform, as democracy was not institutionalised.

The tri-partite balance was precarious because the two political legs, AL and BNP, were never reconciled with the balance when they were in power. Power gave them unchecked monopoly of resource extraction from a growing economy and the flow of riches not only enlarged their bulk, but also swelled their ambitions. They did not want the good times to end. Destruction of their main political opponents as a balancing force and achieving uni-polarity become the main goal of parties while in power.

AL believes that BNP is an artificial construct patched up by combining diverse anti-AL groups and interests and only held together by the tenuous leadership of Begum Zia. They are convinced that a prolonged exile from the nourishing government power will doom the motley alliance. BNP on the other hand is convinced that it has hit upon the magic formula of permanent majority through electoral alliance with Jamaat. They firmly believe that this centre right and religious conservative combination can send AL into long-term exile from power.

But the bloated self-assurance of AL and BNP about their own strengths and own prospects did not extend to the people. They have never been confident that they can count on the people to support their agenda. And with none of them having the smallest democratic bone in their structural make-up, they unashamedly tried to upset the balance in the most under-handed and undemocratic way possible. With every cycle of power transition, the efforts became more brazen and more ugly. Only the mechanism of election under CTG, backed by the silent but menacing might of the army, proved to be capable of restoring the balance.

We now know that the tri-partite balance is broken and there is uni-polarity in Bangladesh politics now, although where it is durable or not remains to be seen. So what has changed? Why didn’t the mechanism to restore balance work this time? There have been few changes in the internal dynamics of Bangladesh politics in the last decade.

Although the political clout of the army has diminished somewhat, in a country where institutions of state and politics are not strong, the group with the heavy guns remains a significant force to be reckoned with. Another important change is the emergence of the garments business elite. The Bangladesh economy has become lopsidedly dependent on the garments sector because it makes up 85% of the total exports and nearly 20% of GDP. Since wealth and power of this sector are not spread wide like other economic activities but concentrated among few thousand business elites, their political influence has become formidable.

But the army and garments elite did not intervene to restore balance during the last political impasse. Unlike 1990, 1996 or 2006, they did not feel that more inclusive and competitive politics is necessary to keep the resource-extraction run humming. Without fracture in the elite, radical political change is nearly always impossible. Moreover, despite the flurry of diplomatic activities by our powerful foreign friends and ensuing media brouhaha, one gets the impression that they too were not too invested in intervening to restore balance. I do not know why the military, the business elite, or our foreign friends did not intervene. I can only speculate based on available information and analysis.

I believe that the powers outside the dueling duo perceived that distortions to the balance of power during the AL regime 2009-13 had become markedly large. The political cleavage also became so pronounced that they thought correcting the distortions and restoring balance may become more destabilising to the country than letting the status quo continue.

They also saw that the drivers of the economy, garments, and remittances have gone through such expansion in the last decade and had become adequately self-perpetuating to the extent that a closed and restrictive political order will not be significantly detrimental for resource extraction in the short-run; they probably think it may even help keep the good times rolling. Lastly, they are aware that Bangladesh is socially and politically so diverse that hegemony is impossible for any political power, even for an uni-polar one. They are also confident that they can cut AL down to size if  they foolhardily aim for that in the future.

I think that the distortions in the balance of power between BNP and AL since 2009 is mainly due to the litany of mistakes by BNP. The shocking loss of power in the 2008 elections and a series of humiliations since then should have jolted any major party back into re-organisation for strength, but it has spent nearly a decade now making laughable new-year’s resolutions every six months. Its twin centres of power not only confuse rank and file of the party but also all other power-blocks inside and outside the country. BNP outsources relationship development with foreign friends to frauds, charlatans and incompetent nobodies while domestic re-organisation and strength building are left to Jamaat. BNP underestimated the power of a modern state to contain political instability although it is a veteran of state power.

Most importantly, BNP mis-calibrated Sheikh Hasina’s steely determination after the dark day of August 21 to keep BNP away from power by any means necessary. I think BNP leaders and supporters are yet to fully grasp the importance of that day.

Unawareness about political calculation being made by other interests and powers and because of dependence on others for strength and diplomacy, BNP wrongly read the relative power balance going into the last months of 2013. In terms of relative power, BNP was never stronger and AL never weaker than in those months. But the difference was greatly in favour of AL and that difference was only destined to grow larger after the election.

BNP could have extracted the maximum concessions from AL in those months and shifted the power of the state from directly opposing it to a more accommodating position. With much freer political space to manoeuvre with, with the huge popular support behind it and without the full power of the state buttressing AL, BNP could have been able to restore the balance by itself or at least improved its formal political power significantly. That improvement in the power balance would not have helped restore more inclusive and competitive politics. With that window of opportunity gone, we are now reduced to watching a pathetic recurring replay of a light-weight boxer getting mercilessly hammered into pulp by a heavy-weight.

Some of my politics-savvy friends say that in Bangladesh government power makes parties in power seem Machiavellian geniuses, and parties out of power seem dunces of the stupidest kind. They say that during 2002-06, BNP, too, looked unshakably formidable and AL looked clueless. I concede that they have a valid point but I also say that people with powerful friends or sponsors can afford to be stupid. People who have not chosen very reputable friends and have not assiduously cultivated relationships with previous friends do not have the luxury to be lazy and stupid. BNP’s main fault was leaping into a gamble of the highest stake without assessing the cards at hand or pondering possible plays of the opponent.

Mr Sobhan dejectedly says at the end in that op-ed: “It leaves us with the unhappy realisation that representative and participatory elections are finished in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future.” Although I share his gloom for the short-run, I think this imbalance is not durable. Centre-right political forces have been consistently formidable in all kind of electoral democracies and right now they are triumphant all across the world.

BNP, as the natural claimant of centre-right politics in Bangladesh, has an immense well-spring of power and influence in popular support. But ineptitude at the highest level of leadership has not only hindered its growth back to its normal strength, but also exacerbated the internal imbalance. Democracy in our country is not institutionalised. We can bring back competitive elections only through internal balance of powers and hope that, over time, practice will stick and get institutionalised. 

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