It’s the elections, stupid

by David Bergman

edi01The most proper, obvious and urgent response to the current political crisis in Bangladesh is to condemn the violence.
First, the murderous arson apparently undertaken mostly by opposition pickets, or their hired goons, which has killed more than 50 members of the public and seriously injured many others. And then, if you are fair minded, the apparently unlawful killings by the law enforcement authorities which number about 20 opposition activists or pickets.
But then what?
For the government (who of course only condemn the opposition violence), it is to continue with a law enforcement crackdown.
What this means is that on top of the thousands of opposition activists already arrested, no doubt very many on false cases, there will be more arrests. Further top level opposition leaders will also be detained including at some point BNP’s leader Khaleda Zia. And of course the numbers of extrajudicial killings will mount.
This may well make the government feel good about itself and, in light of the violence of the opposition pickets, seem to many as legitimate.
However, such a policy is very unlikely to stop the violence. It does not take very much organisation to set fire to a bus and any crackdown is likely to intensify the strength of feeling of oppositional forces within the country against the government. In fact despite the crackdown over the past two weeks, the rate of killing by ‘opposition pickets’ has increased.
And even if over the course of this coming year, the government’s policy was to work (or get close to working), apart from the dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of additional unnecessary deaths, at the end of it Bangladesh will not be the same country in which we have been accustomed to living since the fall of General Ershad in 1990. Bangladesh will in all likelihood have shifted significantly towards becoming an authoritarian one-party state.
For the Awami League and its supporters this may not sound so bad. It will be — ‘their’ one-party state, after all. Since its role in the war of independence, the party has a deep sense of entitlement that it alone has a right to run the country and essentially views the two main parties of opposition as illegitimate. If the Awami League cannot win fairly at the ballot box, then holding onto power coercively will do fine for them.
For everyone else though, life will not be so pleasant.
So, what is the alternative to a crackdown? What is the reasonable solution out of this quagmire?
The current situation — which some suggest could well tilt towards becoming a civil war — stems from the fateful decision by the prime minister to remove from the constitution the provisions establishing an election-time caretaker government without replacing it with a formula that provided other parties confidence that any future elections would be conducted fairly.
Many argue that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party should have taken part in those elections whatever its fears about voter manipulation by the ruling party — but it was nonetheless a fear shown to be legitimate by the subsequent upazila elections conducted in spring 2014 where, under the eyes of the media and the supposedly independent Election Commission, the Awami League conducted widespread ballot box stuffing. And nothing was done about it.
As a result of both the opposition boycott and the games played by the governing coalition in its election candidate nominations (including let us not forget the forced imprisonment of General Ershad, the leader of the Jatiya Party just before the elections) Bangladesh now has a parliament in which over half of the members of parliament were elected unopposed, and the other half were elected without any proper competition and with a very small percentage of voter turnout.
But driving the current violence is not just the lack of legitimacy of the government formed after the elections. It has also been the Awami League’s deliberate policy of stopping opposition parties from organising politically. In Dhaka, for example, in the last months of 2014, it was practically impossible for the BNP to hold meetings of its activists, without the police storming them and making arrests on spurious cases.
When the government provides no political space for an opposition political party to function and when the police are arresting more and more of its activists and leaders threatening the organisation’s very existence, it is hardly surprising that it moves towards extremism, The solution to all this though is relatively straightforward.
What should have happened before the January 2014 elections must happen now.
It would involve the government agreeing to hold elections as soon as possible under an arrangement that is acceptable to all sides and allowing opposition parties to hold meetings and rallies.
The Awami League government may have thought that it had ‘got away’ with the elections a year ago, without any serious negative consequence, but now it seems clear that the problem was simply deferred, not solved.
No doubt, getting from the current situation to an election will be a fraught process. But this is the only way to go to get peace and stability back to Bangladesh.
David Bergman is a contributing special correspondent at New Age.

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