With the announcement that Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia is likely to be brought to trial for the fire-bombing deaths during the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) anti-government campaigns in the first few months of this year, and with arrest warrants issued against 28 BNP leaders and activists in association with a bus burning on January 30, it is clear that the Sheikh Hasina government is heading towards a final solution of the BNP problem.
The march towards a de facto one-party state thus seems close to unstoppable. By the time the next elections roll around in 2019, Khaleda Zia’s BNP may well have ceased to exist as any kind of a political force capable of providing any kind of challenge to the ruling Awami League (AL). The question then of whether the party will contest in the next national elections or under what dispensation such elections will be held becomes a moot point. Come 2019, there is every chance that the BNP will no longer be with us, or at least not in any recognisable form or in the form of a viable opposition party that has a realistic chance of coming to power.
In short, it looks as though the AL will get its wish, which, if you have been following the public and private pronouncements of its leaders and fellow travellers for the past few years, has been made pretty clear.
The AL feels that having to alternate in office with the BNP throughout the 1990s and 2000s has kept them from being able to enact the policies this country needs and to see through their vision for developing Bangladesh into a middle-income country and beyond. What Bangladesh needs, according to this school of thought, is steady, uninterrupted, and focused leadership for the next decade or so, with none of the distractions and inefficiencies that come with regular alternating of power, and the end result will be a thriving, prosperous, and developed nation.
The catch-phrase (which, interestingly enough, was precisely the same one used by the BNP, who had a remarkably similar vision, differing only in that they envisaged themselves at the epicentre of power) in vogue is the “Malaysia Model”. Another one is “development before democracy”.
I very much doubt that the AL will abandon the party’s commitment to formal democracy in the sense that regular elections will still be held. The only difference will be that without an opposition worth the name, the election results will be a foregone conclusion and elections will appear as little more than small blip in the multi-year planning for Bangladesh’s future.
Is this all bad? Proponents of the scheme and supporters of the government will point out that de facto one-party rule has worked very well for countries in South-East Asia, and that it was the ability to stay in power for a long period of time to see through the vision of the ruling party that was instrumental in their development.
In a country like Bangladesh, each incoming government typically spends the first few years undoing the policies and projects of its predecessor in office.
The argument is that being able to stay in power for a long-time allows government to be able to focus on the long-term and not govern according to electoral cycles.
In addition, constantly switching governments means that continuity is lost, especially in a country like Bangladesh where each incoming government typically spends the first few years undoing the policies and projects of its predecessor in office, ensuring that growth and development take place at a glacial pace, if at all. The key is delivery. If the government in question really can deliver growth that makes the lives of the Bangladeshi people palpably better and improves the standard of living visibly, then my guess is that a multitude of other sins will be forgiven. But it cannot be a question of pointing to high economic growth or GDP numbers and then haranguing the public for not recognising how good we have it. Numbers don’t tell the whole story and people recognise improvement in their standard of living when they see it, or, to be more precise, when they feel it.
But there are a number of factors weighing against de facto one-party rule being able to deliver us to the promised land of development and middle-income nation status, and this is something that the government should bear in mind as it draws up its plans for our brave new world.
The first is that the entire edifice of democracy is built upon the premise that a strong opposition is what keeps the government honest and in check, and that without any opposition worth the name, the government of the day would constantly run the risk of descending into criminality and corruption. The real danger for the AL is that without an opposition it will find it very difficult to rein in its worst elements, who are already causing havoc around the country and harming the image and reputation of the government and the ruling party.
But there is another cause for concern.
The ideas of Prof Mushtaq Husain Khan of SOAS are pertinent here. He has pointed out that part of what has allowed Bangladesh to function is that the spoils of power have been fairly evenly distributed between the two sides, and it was recognition that they would one day be out of power that kept those in office in check, and hope of coming back to power at the next election that kept those in opposition within the frame.
With no hope of returning to power, these people will now have no incentive to stay their hand and to engage constructively with the government, instead of working towards the destruction of the system and everything that entails. In short, if both sides do not get a share of the spoils, the one on the outside will do everything in its power to make the country ungovernable.
This has more than the ring of plausibility to it, and we have already seen to what lengths an increasingly desperate BNP is willing to go to disrupt the government and put pressure on it.
The BNP is today now more of an insurgency than an opposition party, but this is nothing compared to where things could go in future. If the BNP is wiped off the face of the earth, I think the chances of it being replaced by a similar, saner right of centre political party (that many would hope for) are far lower than the chances of that space being occupied by a much more hard-core right-wing party, if we are lucky, and by radicals or militants, if we are not.
There will always be opposition to the AL. For the last four decades the BNP has been the face and focal point of this opposition. If they go, I am not at all sure that what will rise to take their place will be an improvement.
Zafar Sobhan is the Editor, Dhaka Tribune