One-Party Democracy

Whither Bangladesh?

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

Bangladesh is passing through a strange time when there is no effective political opposition to the govt of the day and to the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) party despite the fact that the country is officially a democratic state. For their own self-styled reason, the erstwhile main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which was established by former President General Ziaur Rahman, and their prime political ally Jamaat-i-lslami (Jl), a party of a medium support base, didn’t participate in the last general election held in 2014.

While, half of the seats were won by the incumbent Awami League uncontested on their way to claim a successive three fourth majority; out of the rest half, few were won by the friendly faction of another medium sized party called Jatiyo Party (JP), which was also created by another former president Genrral Ershad. Ironically this faction became the official opposition in the new parliament.

Bangladesh, notwithstanding the fact that it’s mostly a homogeneous unitary republic with largely a two party, AL and BNP, political tradition for last more than two decades, appears to have stepped into some serious political complexity accompanied by a significant political vacuum. Let alone the plethora of the smaller parties, the medium sized parties also won a much smaller seats and vote shares in the elections paving the way for electoral dominance by the AL and BNP in the democratic period that started since 1991 following the fall of General Ershad through a popular uprising.

There is a long and twisted history about how Bangladesh came to this situation of a potentially perilous political vacuum in the opposition. The present day Bangladesh inherits the legacy of a bloody post-independence political history of killings and coup d'etat and numerous attempts of the latter between mid-seventies and early eighties of the previous century. However, in spite of chaotic political culture of endless strikes, boycott and political violence at grassroots level, there prevailed a relative political stability till 2004 when an attempt on the life of the then leader of the opposition and the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina was made while the BNP was in power with its ally Jl. Sheikh Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh lost his life alongwith most of his family members at the hands of a group of army personnel who allied with a treacherous AL political figure and staged a coup d’etat by passing the army’s chain of command in 1975.  That killing and rehabilitation of the killers by successive military regimes have left a deep scar in the minds of AL politicians and their hardcore supporters . Sheikh Hasina and her sister Rehana survived as they were outside Bangladesh at that time with their husbands. Hence, the 2004 attempt on Sheikh Hasina’s life, where about three dozens of her companions and supporters died and she survived just luckily, was taken very seriously by the AL and the attempted cover up of the masterminds behind the attack deepened AL’s suspicion on the Jl, followers of Sheikh Mujib’s killers and the hostile part of the BNP for being complicit in it.

When AL returned to power in 2008 for its second tenure in the democratic era, after a two years pause of military backed caretaker govt, it was a different and angry AL. It completed the trial of the killers of Sheikh Mujib and executed them. Then it turned its attention to Jamaat-i-Islami and its controversial leadership who were known collaborators of Pakistan Army in 1971. Some trials were completed and most of them including a BNP leader, guilty of similar crime in 1971; were executed as per the verdict of the court. Some cases were yet to be completed, then came the time for next parliamentary election in early 2014. Meanwhile before 2014 the top court of the country scrapped the caretaker govt system as the AL moved there with the plea that it was unconstitutional despite the fact that it was the AL who demanded for it in the first place and forced the BNP to pass it.

The BNP fell into the political trap the AL laid for them by deciding not to participate in the election under any political govt. AL was in a delicate position at that time with the war crime trials for few Jamaat leaders still going on and needed to be in power to avert BNP-Jamaat vengeance and complete the unfinished task as per their 2008 election promise. Covertly, it didn’t mind BNP’s boycotting the election and it was realised later that they also wanted the BNP to do the same. BNP hoped to paralyze Bangladesh with popular agitation like the AL did in 1996, but failed to mobilize people, The difference between the organizational power of both the parties were evident. The much depleted Jamaat wasn’t of much use to BNP, as it earlier was.

In the post 2014 election situation the AL govt managed to receive Indian support and was able to gradually normalized relations with the west and other important countries of the world . It was also able to subdue the subsequent BNP-JI agitations and many of the BNP-JI top and grassroots level leaders were thrown behind the bars or faced police cases.

The govt maintained reasonable success in two key areas i.e. economic growth and countering terrorism. It also, through various measures, undertook corrections to the state ideologies. Secularism was back in the constitution and controversial Islamist lines taken out from fundamental principles of the constitution through court procedures. However, it repressed all the attempts by the BNP to make any political comeback and maintained its singular dominance. In the past it also prevented Dr Yunus, the Noble laureate socio-economic activist to make any political inroads.

However, some other relatively less known but more regressive Islamists now appear to be filing the political vacuum and the AL seems to be indirectly patronizing them. This front called Hefazot-i-lslami (HI), although less known in the mainstream politics, have a huge network of Qaumi Madrassas (orthodox Islamic seminaries in line with Darul Ulum Deoband). They made free thinkers and creative things like sculptures, secular celebrations etc as their target to heighten orthodox Islamic sentiment to the end of their political gain. They are deemed responsible to make the govt scrap some of the write ups by non-Muslim writers and poets from the literature syllabus of the schools. Recently they were able to attain govt recognition for one of the top degree of their seminaries. The govt explained it as an much needed effort to mainstream a vast isolated segment of the society, some analysts suspect it as a ruling party ploy to gain popularity by appeasing the Islamists which was a BNP cup of tea in the yester years.

The liberals of Bangladesh are worried that the AL, the perceived hope of progressiveness,  will dilute its age old principles for clinging on to power through majoritarian populism and in the process might end up destroying whatever liberalism left in Bangladeshi society. Also, the HI could very well become a Frankenstein the more they are promoted to prominence and in future it might turn difficult to dispel  them from the political reality of the country. It’s already problematic enough to deal with the Islamism inculcated in the polity and society of Bangladesh by the erstwhile military rulers . Too much of play with fire might push the nation in the Pakistan way of self destruction.

Vol. 49, No.51, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2017