‘Tis not the season to be jolly; U.S. Government shut down and Bangladesh elections


William Milam    27 December 2018

‘Tis not the season to be jolly

The Christmas season is upon us in the West, in fact has been on us for weeks, if you go by the decorations in the stores and the invitations to bargain sales. And ringing out everywhere, at least in Washington, is the traditional (though not-so-ancient) carol “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” the second line of which is “’Tis the Season to be Jolly.” This is usually the watchword and constant refrain of the Christmas season in America even though the carol is British from the 18th century and derives from a Welsh ballad lauding the coming of the New Year, Spring, young love, and all that.

There are good reasons to be jolly at Christmas time, even this Christmas time, at least for those who are not mired in poverty, or illness, or involved in politics. For those fortunate souls, it is a family time, and usually one’s family, or at least part of it, is gathered round, gifts are exchanged (sometimes even useful ones), good food is plentiful, spirits are high, and the invocation of love for all humanity that is the essence the season abounds. For the less fortunate, it is often a period of serious anxiety and trauma, especially I suspect as they see the affluence and good times going on all around them.

Many of us wonder if Trump really cares about the wall or if he only cares about making it an issue that lights up his support base. The great “dealmaker” could have easily made a deal for the wall funding, but he offered the Democrats nothing in return

But there is another classic tale of Christmas told by the inimitable Charles Dickens. I think many TFT readers will be familiar with his celebrated story A Christmas Carol, in which the anti-hero Scrooge doesn’t believe in Christmas or the spirit of fun and celebration it invokes. His famous reply to all who greet him with the traditional Christmas salutation “Merry Christmas” is “Bah, humbug!” And though Scrooge eventually comes around to enjoying Christmas, it is his anti-hero, anti-Christmas attitude that is the heart of the tale.

But I cannot ignore the outside world. So, the news that the government of Bangladesh is stealing the election there mars my Christmas. This is not a lament on my part for the party from which the election is being stolen, though I admit to being quite partial to that party, but it is a lament that in the 21st century an authoritarian government in Bangladesh can get away with following the fascist playbook written 100 years ago without penalty. I will get to more detail on Bangladesh below, but first let me get to a closer and equally worrisome incipient catastrophe, the almost total collapse of politics in the United States primarily because of what has been termed “temper tantrums” by President Trump.

First, a large part of the US government is now closed for business. This came about when our political leaders found it impossible to find a compromise solution to continue funding government operations after Trump demanded that $5 billion be added to the funding bill for his border wall between Mexico and the US. The Democrats in Congress has warned that funding for the wall could never pass. The shutdown will possibly last for some time, as Trump, who came under great fire from the far right of the media punditry class for “betrayal” when he gave his assent to a compromise several days before the shutdown, seems to be driven by what he hears from the right-wing media. Many of us wonder if Trump really cares about the wall or if he only cares about making it an issue that lights up his support base. The great “dealmaker” could have easily made a deal for the wall funding, but he offered the Democrats nothing in return. But that would have upset his base as well as the media hawks to whom he listens do closely.

At the same time, Trump decided to order the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria (about 2,000 it seems) without discussing the issue with any of his national security advisors or military leaders, including Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. By the way, perhaps of more import to Pakistanis, Trump followed up his non-inclusive decision on Syria with an order withdrawing half of the US troops in Afghanistan—a decision that is surely going to reduce our ability to bring about a political solution.

The Syria decision was the last straw for Mattis, who was the only person left in the administration that gave most US allies as well as the great majority of defense and security experts in the US any confidence in the probity and reliability of the US in security matters and international affairs generally. Mattis’ resignation letter is generally viewed as a stinging rebuke to the President He had announced he would leave at the end of February, but Trump in a “you can’t quit, I am firing you” petulant way, announced today that Mattis would leave by January 1, and that his Deputy Patrick Shanahan would take over as Acting Secretary of Defense. As of New Year’s Day, Trump will have an Acting Attorney General, an Acting Chief of Staff, and an Acting Secretary of Defense. There are many more “actings” in subcabinet positions as two years into his administration he has yet to fill many of those positions.

Adding more clouds to our normally cheery Christmas picture is a US government that is close to dysfunctional. In my world, that competes with the bad news from Bangladesh. From all the accounts I have received, as well as most of the news accounts, the story there is of a government wave of violence and intimidation with the clear objective of frightening the opposition candidates from campaigning and the voters from voting. It is a clear picture of a government willing and able to take any measures necessary to ensure its re-election. “Re-election” is really not the right word, as a stolen election is really not an election at all. It is clearly an illegal seizure of power. With one week to go as I write this, and only two days before the election when readers see this article, it is very hard to see how any other result is possible. However, the Army is to deploy today, and there is always an outside chance its presence will give the people an adequate feeling of security so they come out in force to vote. There is a general feeling that the majority of Bangladeshis hunger for change if only they can vote.

As an example of the constraints put on the media so that reporting the government cheating will not be possible, journalists covering the election will not be allowed to use motorbikes on election day. In 10 previous elections, motorbikes were okay. Journalists must have accreditation from the Election Commission (EC) to enter polling centers. No live broadcasting will be allowed from those centers. Obviously, the EC will have the ability to ensure only friendly journalists are accredited. Reports that I get from the field are quite drastic. The politicized and partisan police are arresting many opposition candidates on spurious charges. Other opposition candidates have been attacked either by police or by party activists while police stand by, so normal campaigning is impossible.

Fear is being spread by the government goons particularly in rural areas and particularly among women, so they will be afraid to go out to vote. Finally, there will be very few foreign observers because of government actions or its failure to agree to conditions that would allow for valid observation. The US announced only yesterday that it would not send the 30+ observers it had planned to send because the government would not agree to meet the generally recognized conditions that allow observers to really observe.

Finally, an item that may also interest Pakistanis: I was sent today (very timely) a copy of an article in the Indian Press with the titleBangladesh is the Mirror Image of Pakistan. The reference, though from a Bangladeshi refugee from Sheikh Hasina’s repression, cannot have meant other than this crooked election in Bangladesh is remarkably similar to the recent also very questionable election in Pakistan. So, when these two South Asian authoritarian countries claim to be democracies, what can we say but “Bah humbug?”

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The article appeared in the Friday Times on 27 December 2018