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