Bangladesh: It ain’t over ‘til it is

It ain’t over ‘til it is

by William Milam February 8, 2019

It will be a hard and maybe painful uphill slog to rebuild a coherent opposition in Bangladesh, writes William Milam

Last Friday, February 1, the well-known and regarded weekly news magazineThe Economistconsigned Bangladesh to permanent authoritarianism, a political malady that has lately seemed to overwhelm the immune system of democracies. In an article entitled “Obituary of a Democracy: Bangladesh,”The Economistsaid “The country’s parliament commences rubber-stamp duties today, when after a transparently fraudulent election last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League will begin her fourth term….The League has successfully done away with the opposition, captured the courts and silenced critics in the media. Sheikh Hasina will promise to deliver on economic development while Bangladesh’s tolerant and democratic roots lie forgotten.”

In an earlier article, published right after the election article,The Economistelaborated on the full-throated fascist tactics the government used to win its smashing victory, “The Awami League…flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from the police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag.” This article described the multi-fold neo-fascist blitzkrieg at the polls by the AL in graphic detail. But its analytic focus was on why PM Hasina and the AL went to such overt overkill to ensure a victory that they likely would have won anyway. As in the above paragraph, however, the fact that the real loser was democracy was an afterthought.

I wonder ifThe Economistlost track of Bangladesh politics for a while. Or if, like many observers, it had become so dazzled by Bangladesh’s great success in forging consistently high economic growth and remarkable advances in social development that it just forgot about the corrosive, zero-sum politics that have periodically destabilized the country and for the past 10 years put it firmly on the path to authoritarianism.

Well,The Economist, celebrated for its penetrating analysis of political and economic events and behaviour, a publication, widely admired and trusted, very influential in setting the context for thinking about international politics, is an authoritative voice. To differ is to stick one’s journalistic neck out. But my response is to quote Yogi Berra, as I have many times before in my articles: to say wait a minute, democracy and the democratic defenders in Bangladesh may be down and disoriented, but they are not yet out; as Yogi said many times when his team was playing from behind, very far behind sometimes, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Those democratic roots thatThe Economistreferred to in the first paragraph are still in the ground and not forgotten, and the opposition to the AL one-party government, though reeling from the neo-fascist blitzkrieg of violence, intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and all the other dirty tricks, is still on its feet, and working to make sure they are not forgotten and don’t die. After all, nothing is really over in politics until they reach the totalitarian stage, and not even then, if the history of the Soviet Union is any example.

But clearly the struggle to preserve and nourish those very-damaged democratic roots is a very steep uphill one. According to all reports, the AL government has not let up on its campaign to eliminate the political opposition, and fear of reprisal is the primary enemy of those who want to rebuild a viable opposition. Anyone who steps up to question the government’s bona fides is liable to find him-or herself under arrest, and subject to some of the usual conditions of arrest in Bangladesh, which involves some sort of violent treatment. The opposition is subject to the vagaries of a police state, which Bangladesh has become for any opposition, and fear stifles not only the temptation to dissent, but the ability to attract the new people and the financing necessary rebuild and grow a viable opposition. In some way, the nebulous union of democratic countries, in the West, Asia, and Africa, concerned about growing authoritarianism not just in Bangladesh, but in much of the world, must develop a common strategy on how to help preserve parties supporting democracy in countries in which democracy is under authoritarian assault. The parties that will turn back authoritarian forces must be viable parties in themselves.

In addition to fear, the other impediment to building a viable opposition in Bangladesh is the tenacity of belief in existing parties, even those clearly not viable in their present form. Pollsters and pundits differ on whether the opposition coalition to the AL one-party government could have won the December 30 election if it were a more or less free and fair. I was agnostic, given that most polls showed the AL would win, but it seemed sure that the opposition would win at least a third of the seats in Parliament, and I hoped that would be the crucible for a melding of the various parties which it included into a coalition of the like-minded which put democracy above personal gain or political aggrandizement. It can be argued that this hope was in vain, given the nature of Bangladesh politics, but we will never know as PM Hasina went over the top in electoral chicanery to make sure that the AL one-party government was not threatened by a viable party (though that may not have been her conscious motivation).

It is clear to me that a viable opposition to the AL one-party government would include a large part of the BNP but neither its perennial partner, the Islamist Jaamat-i-Islami, nor that part of the BNP that still looks to the son of Kaleda Zia as its future leader. These parts of the BNP are, I believe, toxic in many votes’ eyes. When I mention this to many Bangladeshi friends, they look at me with disbelief, as if political parties are somehow cast in stone by nature and can’t be changed. This is to completely misunderstand the role of political parties, which in the modern world (even the less developed part of it) is to carry out the politics of governance, in particular to determine, as political scientist Harold Lasswell put it so bluntly, ‘who gets what, when, and how.”

Political parties change and break up quite often when they can’t deal with great issues of the day. Just two years ago we witnessed a major new party form almost overnight in France, a party of the Center inspired by a charismatic and prescient politician, Emmanuel Macron, which drew in large numbers of adherents of parties on both the left and the right, and now governs France (though with some difficulty at present). In the US, parties appeared and disappeared in the first 75 years quite regularly—the Federalist party of Washington and John Adams disappeared soon after they did; and the Whig party, formed mainly out of remnants the Federalists and other conservative parties in opposition to the Administrations of Andrew Jackson and in support of Congressional supremacy over the President , broke up in the early 1850s over slavery, which spawned among others, the Republican Party of Lincoln (who had been a Whig), which became one of the two viable major parties, until maybe now. (There are many who think that the present day Republican Party has so abandoned its traditional conservative principles that it cannot weather a rapidly changing American society; or maybe it can with a different name or a different set of principles.)

In any case, the “unified” opposition that opposed Sheikh Hasina was anything but unified except on one idea—to block the AL government from its determination to move further in the direction of authoritarianism and to save democracy in Bangladesh. But that is how many oppositions begin—with one idea holding them together. But had it won a number of seats, this single purpose could have been the catalyst for further unification and shedding elements that did not fit in.

It will be a hard and maybe painful uphill slog to rebuild a coherent opposition in Bangladesh, perhaps a thankless one as well. Thankfully there are political leaders in Bangladesh determined to do so. They will need more than our prayers; they will need the constant support and whatever help the democracies can provide.

The article appeared in the Friday Times on 8 February 2019

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1 Comment

  • naznoma@yahoo.com'
    nazma mustafa
    February 14, 2019, 11:20 am

    We Bangladeshis are deeply concerned about our nation. Late President Ziaur Rahman as a major from the army declared the Independence of Bangladesh. As President in 1978, Rahman founded the BNP present day party to whom Bangladeshis want to vote. The truth is people dislike this terrorist govt Haseena to whom people do not want to vote. According to the performance of Haseena govt it was clear, not only this year, last 2014 were the same, people will not vote her, it was 100% clear. She stole 100% voting rights, vote finished before the night. Removing the credentials name was a continuous process, two days before Haseena govt removed the name “Zia” from Zia memorial Museum and wants to rename “Liberation War Memorial Museum” (12 February 2019). The world know better “Zia international airport” (Dhaka) was removed by her murky hand. By her personal jealousy she denies the voting power of this nation, from same strategy she wants to remove this “Beloved icon – ZIA” that was well set in every Bangladeshis heart. Due to the popularity of Khaleda Zia she put her in jail out of political diplomacy she controlled the court and well set her all designs, otherwise she cannot control this nation she knew. Still today continuous process of arresting is going on with fake cases, cases has no limit. Tarek Zia is also designed by her conspired cruel homemade conspiracy as a killer. But lots of investigation made it clear that it was done by her paid thugs. Why she stole peoples vote because she performed such actions that people will not vote her, intelligence report showed that she will not acquire the vote a reasonable percentage even. Few false investigation she designed through few false media, facebook etc. These false facebook accounts also came in broad daylight that most of all those fakes were from her paid agents. She knew the real situation and so she did the ruffian voting drill that confirms her power, she continues more vigorously. As a ruling party she is oppressing and torturing the people of Bangladesh more than the Pakistani rulers. And the family those are the best credential records for this nation, she want to remove them from the history. Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia and their son Tarek Zia, their younger son already died, were attacked by her personal jealousy. All Bangladeshis lost their human rights and especially this family loses all their rights of human beings in front of the nation and the world. Even a sick 73 years lady was thrown into a custody that was abandoned building, doctors mentioned it unhealthy damp atmosphere, and how come a three times prime minister did not get any reasonable protocol even. BNP leaders are continuously shouting but their sound was failing same like the stoling voting power of Bangladeshis. Thanks Mr. William Milam at least as a conscious human being you are expressing some of that truth. Surely, God will bless and pay you back.

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