Bangladesh in Turmoil — What the Future Holds

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As the next general elections draw near, Bangladesh’s ruling party and its opponents once again find themselves on a collision course. What consequences could outside intervention have under the circumstances?

 

After a few years of relative peace after an opposition rally on 28 October, Bangladesh suddenly descended into hefty and violent political conflict. The dreaded general strike, hartal, returned, along with bus burning, closed shops and street fighting, supplemented by blockades of major inter-district highways in an effort by the opposition to hurt the economy. At the same time, there have been substantial workers’ protests in the crucial garments industry. Prices were already up in the local markets, partly as a fall-out of the Ukraine war and higher prices internationally on oil, gas and wheat.

Thousands of opposition activists have been arrested — one report held that more than 13,000 had been jailed, but this may be exaggerated, and many are freed after a few days — while many have been killed in street battles, including police officers. The ruling Awami League has mobilised activists in huge counter-demonstrations and to guard public buildings. Vigilantes roam the streets on motorcycles, threaten opposition leaders, and, in some cases, have burned their homes.

To understand where this will end, we need to understand the causes.

 

The immediate past

The immediate cause is efforts by the opposition to prevent the national elections scheduled for January to go ahead. The main opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party BNP, and a host of smaller parties demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government, arguing that the election will be rigged with her at the helm. Their allegations are credible. In the two last elections (2014 and 2018), the administration and police were heavily tilted against the opposition, and they want a return to the neutral caretaker government election time system that existed previously.

A second reason is that Bangladesh has a toxic political culture with strong demands on expressions of loyalty and sacrifice. The two main parties are, in socioeconomic terms, not very different from one another. They both cut across classes, broadly supporting neoliberal policies and have vague political programmes. They differ ideologically in that the Awami League sees itself as the sole and legitimate heir to the legacy of the liberation war in 1971. The BNP, Bangladesh’s main opposition party, resent this effort to monopolise a national legacy, although the resentment is only partly convincing. When in power some 20 years back, the BNP made conscious efforts to elevate its party founder to the same iconic level as the Father of the Nation, Awami League’s larger-than-life founder and leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

A third reason lies in strategic choices and geopolitics. Sheikh Hasina has managed to secure the support of India — Bangladesh’s giant and, at times, domineering neighbour. She has managed this while trying to balance Indian and Chinese interests and investments in her country. Western powers, particularly the US, have been far more critical of her government and have kept pushing for inclusive elections. The US has put several high-ranking officials from the elite counterterrorism force RAB under sanctions, a decision that rattled the ruling clique. But with India on its side, Sheikh Hasina seems safe. In no uncertain terms, India has told the US that there is no need for any meddling in Bangladeshi affairs.

For the opposition, in which the BNP has the absolute leading role, it needs to create a situation where the election becomes illegitimate, both at home and abroad. If successful, this will bolster their organisation and energise activists while also creating further doubt among voters about the viability of the Sheikh Hasina regime. To do so, it is imperative to prevent defection by locally popular leaders from its ranks. This is partly why the BNP leadership is concerned about the many who find themselves in prison — where they can be put under pressure or bribed to defect. But thus far, defections have been few.

The short-term outcome of this unrest is given. There will be an election, and the ruling party will win. There will be the usual paraphernalia of vote rigging, heavy police presence, and low voter turnout. But the ruling party completely controls all government sectors, including police, administration, courts and armed forces.

In addition, Sheikh Hasina does enjoy some popularity. Before the pandemic hit, the government had managed economic growth over several years, a solid record on social indicators, relative stability, and some large development projects. Besides, the opposition BNP is not necessarily a desired or viable alternative. BNP would probably win in a completely free and fair election, but not with an overwhelming majority.

Should the economic worries continue or get any worse, the real, if limited, popularity of the ruling dispensation might unravel. Garments exports have already been hit by lower European demands, and the many large projects financed in part with international loans could quickly turn expensive. Specific crucial sectors of the economy, the exporters, the business community in general, and armed forces personnel and their families, are sensitive to economic upheaval.

 

There are two possible outcomes of this drama. The first scenario is that economic difficulties are severe enough for the opposition to successfully undermine the regime’s legitimacy. In this scenario, the combination of economic hardship and political unrest will directly hurt the rulers’ apparatus. Poor people may be severely hit, but a more dangerous situation is if police and army officers’ families are hit. Then, it will be difficult to order these forces onto the streets to shoot at protesters. Exporters and the business community may also be hit, hurting their ability to finance the ruling party and imports. Should the unrest continue for long, the regime will likely intensify its repressive policies, including disappearances, imprisonment and street violence.

The immediate future

There are two possible outcomes of this drama. The first scenario is that economic difficulties are severe enough for the opposition to successfully undermine the regime’s legitimacy. In this scenario, the combination of economic hardship and political unrest will directly hurt the rulers’ apparatus. Poor people may be severely hit, but a more dangerous situation is if police and army officers’ families are hit. Then, it will be difficult to order these forces onto the streets to shoot at protesters. Exporters and the business community may also be hit, hurting their ability to finance the ruling party and imports. Should the unrest continue for long, the regime will likely intensify its repressive policies, including disappearances, imprisonment and street violence.

Such unrest could also lead to a rethink among supportive foreign powers. India, for instance, is keen on stability in Bangladesh, not on Awami League per se. China might welcome a return of the more India-sceptical BNP. Western powers will be increasingly reluctant to trade and might impose new sanctions. The Bangladesh government will want to weather such pressure, hoping that Donald Trump will return as US president. When he was last president, Trump was far less interested in the export of human rights and notions of democracy than the current US administration has been. Besides, even the current administration is distracted by other international crises.

There is Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, but also the complex relationship with China and an emerging situation in Bangladesh’s neighbour Myanmar. The US also wants to secure a good relationship with a post-election government, and it will be led by Sheikh Hasina. There may be changes in the US stance should Joe Biden secure a second term, but Sheikh Hasina will fight that battle when it comes. In the meantime, she will manage the situation.

A second scenario is that economic worries continue or worsen, and a long-haul opposition struggle gains support and undermines the regime’s legitimacy and ability to rule convincingly. Eventually, the ruling party is forced to resign or enter into a compromise solution. This scenario is less likely than the first. The ruling regime is well-entrenched and has its people in all critical positions in the country. Many, if not most, have been involved in practices and activities that will cause them difficulties in any other regime. Many will risk prosecution, and quite a few will have to leave the country to hide abroad. Substantial business houses will lose lucrative government contracts, news corporations will fall out of favour, army and police officers will be demoted, and officials will be shifted to less attractive postings. Activists and leaders, including parliamentarians and district leaders, will face prison — whether justified or not. These are people who cannot afford a change of government and will struggle hard to ensure the continuation of the current regime.

 

The mid-term future

Bangladesh is a poor, overcrowded country of more than 160 million people. A free and fair election would be a feat to celebrate, although a free and fair election does not mean a return to democracy. In 2006, the last time the BNP was in government, the country descended into chaos as the government manipulated the rules to ensure that the neutral caretaker government would not be impartial. There is no reason to believe they will relinquish power easily if given another chance at the helm. Besides, it is far from clear that a BNP government will guarantee competent government. Its record in that respect is far from impressive, and the marginal changes in its leadership since then do not give reason for optimism. After years of marginalisation followed by a long-drawn violent opposition, an unfortunate blend of vengefulness and greed seems more likely than dedication to good governance.

Prolonged unrest over months and years will also have repercussions well beyond its borders. The number of labour migrants is already in the millions, with 400,000 leaving yearly. Unrest and increased poverty will increase the trend. Bangladeshis already constitute one of the large communities of migrants to Europe. India is clearly fearful of the impact unrest on its eastern borders will have in the politically contested states surrounding Bangladesh and of the openings such unrest could create for China. Western powers will also have to think carefully about any effort to nudge a change of government and the consequences a long-drawn, chaotic and violent transition will have globally and for the people of Bangladesh.

The situation is not a happy one, and there is no immediate solution available. Any hope for changes in the country’s political culture lies in long-term work of reconciliation, education in democracy, and the building of independent state institutions. There are precedents for this, for instance, the 1996 consensus on the caretaker instrument, but this will have to be done with great care by Bangladeshis themselves. For the moment, outside pressure is a double-edged sword likely to do more harm than good.

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