Bangladesh has plunged once again into one of those recurrent crises that have punctuated the country’s political life since independence. Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, decided to commemorate the first anniversary of the 2014 parliamentary elections as the day of “the murder of democracy” at the start of the year, calling for a demonstration that was immediately outlawed by the government. Consequently, the opposition called for a widespread movement of national protest, including a transportation blockade across waterways, railways, and roads in an effort to pressure the government to resign and conduct fresh elections under a caretaker government. General strikes have followed and 60 to 70 percent of all transport to or from the capital Dhaka has been stopped, crippling the national economy. Meanwhile, the conflict has evolved from a political one into an increasingly violent struggle.
Superficially, the ongoing crisis is yet another chapter in the decades-long struggle between the current prime minister and leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, and her rival and predecessor as prime minister, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, one of the main architects of Bangladesh’s independence, was killed in 1975 along with most of his family in a military coup. This was just the first in a series of military coups, counter-coups, and authoritarian rule that characterized Bangladesh’s political life during the following decades. Khaleda Zia emerged as a political figure as an indirect result of the coup that killed Mujibur Rahman. Her husband, Ziaur Rahman, was Bangladesh’s first military ruler and created the BNP as a civilian appendix to the military. He too was killed in another military coup in 1981, leading to Khaleda taking over of the BNP.
But if the political rivalry is exacerbated by the personal dramas of the two women, the ongoing crisis is also attributable to a deeper malaise in the nation, due to the authoritarian drift of the current government that has led the country’s politics into an impasse. A series of constitutional amendments have effectively suppressed the institution of the caretaker government and ended the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary, constraining political and public freedom throughout the country. Simultaneously repression of the press and media has increased.
The crisis is clearly having short-term repercussions, and will potentially have major long-term consequences. The recent trouble has already inflicted massive pain on the economy. The recurring nature of political crises has stopped the flow of foreign direct investment and could cause investment to flee and employment to suffer, adding further social dimensions to the political contention.
The current deadlock could also have a more devastating impact if it led to the collapse of the law-and-order apparatus. The return to power of Sheikh Hasina had been accompanied by an intensification of counter-terrorism operations. But terrorism is again on the upswing in Bangladesh. The resurgence of Islamic terrorism is part of a broader regional and international movement, in which national groups are also influenced by overarching jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda. According to the Global Terrorism Index Report 2014, published by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace, Bangladesh has jumped to be ranked 23rd in terms of countries most affected by terrorism, up from 39th in 2011. The report sees it as one of the 13 countries likely to see an increase in terrorism in the coming year.
The situation could grow uncontrollable if the hijacking of the political system by the Awami League and the BNP leads to the further marginalization of large segments of the Bangladeshi population, and quite possibly to the growing radicalization of some of its fringes. The growing irrelevance of the political elite to the population is likely to create a vacuum that radical organization will only be too keen to fill.
The absence of any obvious exit scenario makes the current crisis particularly worrisome. New elections, for which there is no legal basis, are not the solution. Bangladesh’s political elites do not share even a minimum baseline for democratic culture and procedure. Elections outcomes are systematically rejected by the losing party, and the victorious party continually refuses to recognize the rights of the minority, questioning its legitimacy as a political entity. New elections would most likely spark a new cycle of retribution, leading in turn to violent reactions from the opposition.
Past efforts to reform Bangladesh’s political system have failed. An attempt was made by the military-backed caretaker government between 2006 and 2008 to create a third major political force and change the dynamic of the current dysfunctional bi-partisan system, by “inviting” representatives of existing political parties to join. Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus joined the operation, and lost his position as the head of the Grameen Bank in the process. The effort failed.
Finally, the military, which has been granted greater involvement in the economy, shows no appetite for a take-over for the time being. In giving the military a bigger role, the government intended to help reduce the risk of a coup, and it seems to have been an effective defense.
The immediate priority for the international community should be to deflate the crisis and stop the violence. But beyond this complex task, there is an urgent need to promote a national dialogue. This should be developed in a way that defines a common political will as well as universally acceptable rules to prevent a descent into anarchy or the recourse to an authoritarian military regime. It would also help reach a baseline of democratic consensus. The organization of a national conference with representatives from all political parties and from civil society could be a step in the right direction. Civil society may in the process prove wiser than the political elite of the country. For the time being however, such a proposition remains only a distant possibility.
Frederic Grare is a senior associate and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.