Bangladesh Elections: The rhymes of history


by William Milam       14 december 2018

The rhymes of history

Jatiya Oikya Front chief Dr Kamal Hossain speaks to the press after the inauguration of the alliance’s office in Dhaka’s Purana Paltan on December 5

The Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka has published a report on the contents of the draft election manifesto of the coalition of opposition parties which is challenging the Awami League (AL) one-party government in the December 30 election in Bangladesh. I am going to depart from my usual caution about press reports and assume the paper got it right so that I can write about it. The paper says that it has got hold of a draft, and I am going to trust not only its description of the draft’s content but that the draft will not change greatly in substance when being put into final. That is a great leap of faith, and I hope it isn’t a leap too far, into the void.

To remind readers about the exciting rise of this coalition, officially named the Oikyafront, in Bangladesh, it appeared suddenly with almost no warning in September, a coalition (or alliance) of small centrist Bangladeshi parties, led by possibly the most prestigious Bangladeshi political leader, Kamal Hossain. A leader of impeccable credentials, a ‘freedom fighter’ during the struggle for independence, a close associate of the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Mujib, law minister in its first government and chief drafter of the country’s original constitution, foreign minister and energy minister after that, he is probably the only person with the gravitas to have pulled the coalition together and to have great resonance with the public. Hossain was joined by other venerable political leaders with great public resonance from the other parties in the original coalition.

These small parties, with very limited vote banks, had no chance to upset the entrenched AL government by themselves and were not taken seriously at first. But after some delay and some negotiations, the other major party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) concluded that, after a ruthless campaign of terror, intimidation, and harassment against it since 2014, the AL had come close to succeeding in its goal of eliminating the BNP as a viable major party. Its senior leaders were in jail, in exile, or inactive, its partisans, activists and foot soldiers disillusioned and in disarray, and the party stood no chance on its own to win against the AL either. So, reason prevailed, and the BNP came together with the coalition to combine forces in the challenge to the AL government. The original coalition of centrist parties brought the leadership, both intellectual and more importantly moral legitimacy, to the Front. The BNP brought the vote bank and the foot soldiers needed to succeed against the formidable AL machine, grounded in methods of harassment and intimidation, and armed with an almost blank check to cheat in all possible ways.

This is reminiscent of how, in 1990, the two major parties, the AL and the BNP, came together after a decade of mistrust and jealousy, in a movement against the Ershad regime which was also used to employing force to beat back such challenges. The temporary unity of the two parties proved too powerful to overcome, and the army proved unwilling to kill its own countrymen to save one of its own. Ershad was forced from power and the two parties alternated at governing, neither doing it very well or with much interest, as they went after each other, and gorged on the economic rents of governance. The string of alternating governments ran out in 2006 when the election violence became so bad that the army took over for two years. The military interregnum missed the opportunity to set things right by focusing on good governance and neglecting to elaborate rules of the road for political parties and strengthen the institutions that enforce them.

The draft manifesto addresses this lack and is a serious attempt to begin the transformation of Bangladesh into a country on the path to real democracy and to prevent its continuing along the authoritarian path which the AL government has been following since the one-party election of 2014. It recognizes implicitly that either major party could have, and probably would have, chosen that path had it had the opportunity. The Awami League got the opportunity first, primarily because of its large majority in the 2008 election which gave it the space to rescind the caretaker amendment of the constitution that guaranteed mostly free and fair elections. It had that veto-proof majority because the BNP’s misuse of the amendment in 2006 had led to the military intervention and to general public opprobrium for the party. The BNP compounded the error by boycotting the 2014 election, which gave the AL carte blanche to try to eliminate its main rival.

There is much to the draft manifesto, but its transformative character comes primarily through changes to the constitution that would strengthen the checks and balances of a system in which all power now is in the Prime Minister’s office. A second important objective appears to be to enhance the rule of law. Among the major constitutional changes to bring checks and balance to the system would be the creation of an upper house of the legislature (the Jatiya Sangsad) which would be appointed according to the percentage of votes each party receives in general elections, and would be drawn from persons of different professions. One presumes that this upper house would serve as some kind of formal check on the lower house of the legislature (as does the Senate in the US) rather than an advisory role (as the House of Lords in the UK), but this is not specified. In addition, the draft specifies that the Deputy Speaker of the lower house and several heads of legislative standing committees would be reserved for opposition members. This would be not only a check on the legislative power of the governing party but make for better, more publicly acceptable laws. The draft reads that the “main function of parliament will be making laws, policies, and reviewing enforcement of these laws.” The restrictions of the constitution against voting against a MP’s own party will be rescinded, except for votes of confidence and the budget, and a two-term limit would be imposed on Prime Ministers.

To strengthen institutions that enforce the rules or the road for political parties, the draft manifesto would, in principle set the judiciary free and independent. An independent commission, including representatives from opposition parties, would appoint Supreme Court judges and “officials in constitutional posts” and public opinion for the nominees would be solicited. The Supreme Court would control the lower judiciary. The courts will decentralize in order to reduce case back log, and a commission will be created to decentralize the delivery of services through strengthened city governance.

There is much more to the draft manifesto that I suspect would be welcome by the general public that is not fundamentally transformative but would certainly change peoples’ lives. The Front promises to refrain from vengeance, stop extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, physical torture. It would scrap the digital security law, an act calling for surveillance that was heavily criticized by human rights groups and others who saw the approach of a police state in its implementation, and calls for no controls on social media.

I could go on, there is more, but readers will get the drift. If implemented, this manifesto promises, over time and with much effort, a completely different state on the path to real democracy. That is why I wonder if all parts of the Front are in full agreement with it. It would step on some very sensitive toes. But it would show a very different side of South Asia to the world. Will the history of 1990 repeat itself? It was Mark Twain who allegedly said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. By that, I think he meant the traumas of the past are often echoed in the present and the recoveries from those traumas look much like the past recoveries. So if the Oikyafront can manage to make 2018 rhyme with 1990, it will have provided an example of what dedicated democrats can do not only in Bangladesh and South Asia, but for all of us who continue to deal with governments headed toward authoritarianism or are already there.

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 was originally published in The Friday Times on 14th December 2018