By Abdur Rahim 10 December 2018
In December this year, a free and fair election – a rarity in Bangladesh since 2008 – will determine whether the country will follow the path of democracy or authoritarianism. This was the key topic of discussion at the South Asia Journal Special Launching and Seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC on December 6, 2018.
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia Program of the Wilson Center conducted and moderated the seminar.
30th December, 2018 will decide whether Bangladesh would choose the path of promoting a healthy multi-party democracy or cement Bangladesh’s fate to a long-lasting authoritarianism – these are the alternatives that the seminar explored and discussed.
While most speakers credited Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country of nearly 170 million people for achieving remarkable economic growth and its vibrant economy they also expressed concerns about country’s deteriorating democratic norms and dwindling stability. Indeed, Bangladesh’s strategic geopolitical location warrants that the international community plays its due role to ensure that the 2018 election is free and fair to avoid future chaos and instability.
These were the views that emanated from the seminar held at the Wilson Center, one of America’s leading think tanks. The Seminar also included launching of the Special Issue, Whither Bangladesh of the South Asia Journal. South Asian Journal also co-hosted the event.
At the outset, Ghulam Suhrawardi, publisher of the South Asia Journal, outlined the publication’s interest in the region by saying, “South Asia is a strategic region that caters to significant interests of the geopolitical players. The role of the smaller nations in the area has not been propagated well by the international media. The journal’s objectives have been to fill in this void.
Panelists and participants, ranging from US State Department “representatives including the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, several former ambassadors including the immediate past US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ms. Bernicut and also Mr. William Milam, another former US Ambassador to Bangladesh, a former minister of Bangladesh, think tank leaders, political scientists, distinguished South Asia researchers and key development practitioners attended the seminar.
Addressing the program, Ambassador William B. Milam, Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center and former US Ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan argued that Bangladesh at the present time triggers both fear and hope at the same time. Fear because its recent history of governance which has been characterized by brutal authoritarianism is anything but inspiring and the recent formation of a political front on the eve of the election which is fighting to restore democracy and rule of law is indeed, giving much hope. Noting ruling party’s poor track record on human rights and democratic norms Mr. Milam noted that “It is apparent that the election scenario may even be going dirtier. As news about the dead body of an opposition candidate floating in the river; the coming days could be even harsher. Arrest, intimidation, and harassment of the opposition candidates may go higher and higher and also there could be spurious charges against them.” Mr. Milam was concerned that “The incumbent government has all the means to rig the entire election, if it wants to; which will take to a complete one-party system. However, it is very unlikely that one party state can function”.
Ambassador Milam acknowledged that seeds of development in Bangladesh were sown during 1990-2008, the period of democratic governance as there were four relatively fair elections conducted by a non-party caretaker government that contributed to peaceful power swaps and that “this maintained a balance of power, though not perfect.”
Explaining that power shifts have simply promoted change of actors in sharing economic benefits and not supporting and entrenching democratic norms, Milam argued that this also revealed a scenario of failure of politics in Bangladesh. He observed that “Institutions are central to politics and institutions operates through politics. The recipe of instability in Bangladesh was that the institutions had been politicized to serve party interests, by both parties, deteriorating the balance.”
After reflecting widely on severe rights violations, outright murders of the BNP candidates and massive arrests, Mr. Milam sounded hopeful that the newly formed political front led by Dr. Kamal Hossain has offered a challenge to Hasina, not at her par, yet a formidable one, concluding that “Bangladesh will not turn into a democracy overnight, but it still keeps the hope alive provided the election goes well.”
Eminent political scientist Professor Ali Riaz succinctly yet profoundly explained the deep political crisis in Bangladesh which is rooted in malfunctioning of a multi-party system, the judiciary, and also the executive branch. He also reflected on the role of the international community and briefly touched upon the recent growing influence of the conservative religious forces stimulated by the government’s authoritarianism. Professor Riaz observes that “Bangladesh’s trajectory of governance ranges from electoral authoritarianism to a hybrid regime, which is paving the way to total absolutism.” He further noted that “Under the electoral authoritarianism, the legitimacy of every action has been drawn through the election, by different means. The post-2008 scenario tells the complete decimation of the civil society, and there have been severe attacks on the intellectuals. The regime ensured no accountability” and that the ‘Hybrid Regime’ has been sustained since 2014 through a mixture of autocracy and repression. Professor Riaz pointed out that “The formula of sustenance of hybrid regime is in election rigging, control of judicial, executive and legislative arena and the capacity to mobilize. Unfortunately, the road from here is to total authoritarianism. Hence, it’s the chance, should Bangladesh be back to its democracy with shortcomings or fall.” Awami League courted a prominent Islamic group Hefazat including 60% of the Islamic parties for winning the election. This allows the Quami Madrasah in the socio-political arena. Hefazat wants to control the biggest Muslim gathering Tablig (after Hajj in Makkah) by taking sides with one faction. This will make it the most powerful Islamic organization in Bangladesh.
Dr. Riaz prophetically said, “the current moment [30th December election] seems the last chance for a return of democracy in Bangladesh. This election will be the most consequential in its electoral history”.
He strongly flagged the important role the international community can play in restoring democracy in Bangladesh and questioned the UNfor its failure to follow up the Taranco Commission that led dialogues forinclusive elections before the most controversial 2014 election.
Commenting on Indian and US participation about helping democracy in Bangladesh, Professor Riaz argued that “Role of neighboring India is the elephant in the room. Perhaps India received a blank check on its neighboring partner, but the question that remains very significant is – how would they cash it?.”
Dr. Riaz anticipates that if the government of post 30th December election lacks moral legitimacy, they will be under enormous pressure which may lead to further violence in the form of total crackdown on the dissents. Pointing at the lackluster attitude of the international community to Bangladesh Dr. Riaz jokingly said that it seems that “The International community talk about four lines about Bangladesh – the issue of the Rohingyas; countering extremism; sustained growth over two decades, and by the time they reach to the fourth point, namely the issue of massive human rights violations and authoritarianism, most people including the reporters either leave or fall off to sleep.”
Another panelist of the seminar Dr. Tamina Chowdhury, a Consultant at the World Bank detailed the adverse effect of Digital Security and Information Act on the freedom of expression which she and others have deemed the ‘most draconian’ such that “Everyone has to remain silent, and that is the government’s motto to maintain the status quo.” Dr. Chowdhury further wondered how in these freedom-constraining conditions people can express their opinion, let alone exercise their civic rights to choose and vote freely and thus suggests that “The election is an opportune moment and the international community needs to speak in one clear voice as crucial partners of Bangladesh, they can’t afford to disengage themselves.” She thus emphasized on the importance of reconsidering to send election observers to exert influence and promote a climate of free and fair election.
The seminar ended with a vote of thanks from the Chair with the promise that the proceedings of discussions would be duly shared with key stakeholders.