Political conflict 2015 – Understanding the crisis

By no means comprehensive, but here are eight points to understand the current crisis in Bangladesh and why it appears particularly intractable.

1. At its heart, this current conflict is about the legitimacy of the current government.
Although at the end of its five years in power, the Awami League government did in January 2014 hold elections, the lack of participation of the BNP opposition alliance (whether justified or not) meant that most Bangladeshis,  either had no opportunity to vote (as 153 seats were uncontested) or had no real choice if they wanted to vote for an alternative to the Awami League  As a result, although most people were simply pleased that the election ended the bitter and violent conflict of the previous months, and normal life was able to return, there remained concerns about the legitimacy of the election which have always remained bubbling under the surface.

By all accounts, in recognition of the concerns about the election’s legitimacy, a senior Awami League adviser soon after the election suggested a plan to party leaders that it should start negotiations with the BNP,  move towards elections after a couple of years, and in the meantime govern the country so that it would win its support to allow victory at the poll. This plan, which had it been implemented would in all likelihood have avoided the current situation and could well have been a boon to the Awami League, was rejected. There was no further talk of interim elections, and rather that any dialogue with the BNP, there was a suppression of the party’s basic political rights.

With an election lacking legitimacy, and a government seeking to prevent the BNP from organizing as a party, it was perhaps inevitable that the BNP, which can count on at least 30 to 35 percent of the vote, would at some point snap.

2. Why did the government barricade Zia and cancel the public meeting?
The immediate origin of the current conflict was the decision by the Awami League government to barricade the Bangladesh Nationalist party leader Khaleda Zia in her Gulshan party office on 3 January and the subsequent police’s refusal to allow the party to hold a public meeting in Dhaka. Why did the government do this?

The most likely explanation for this is that the government feared some kind of Tahrir square situation (which sparked the revolution in Egypt) – where tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would have attended the public meeting and not have moved from the centre of Dhaka. It was perhaps feared that Khaleda Zia might, for example, have called on those who attended the meeting to refuse to leave until the government agreed to elections or some other demand. The very different political protests in Shahbag in February 2013 (following the Quader Molla tribunal decision) and of Hefazet on 5 May 2013 were in their own ways examples of what the government wanted to avoid.

Therefore, whilst the government would have known that the barricading of Zia and the cancelling of the public meeting in Dhaka would garner criticism (which it did), it was a better option than having to deal with the risk an uncontrollable situation in Dhaka.

Another reason could be that the Awami League thought that the barricading of Khaleda Zia, and the prohibition of a public meeting, worked in 2013, and so the party leaders thought that they should repeat the same game plan.

  1. Nothing has weakened the BNP more that the violence.
    On the 5th and 6th January, the first four reported deaths were all BNP activists – two at the hands of the police, and two by Awami League activists. Then the opposition picket violence, involving the throwing of firebombs at vehicles started, and the current tally (as of 24 January) is 19 members of the public killed by picket violence, 8 opposition activists killed by the police and 4 more opposition activists killed apparently by pro-government activists (see full figures here).

    Nothing has weakened the BNP more than these burnings. With Zia barricaded in her house, with the government refusing to allow the BNP to hold a public meeting and with the BNP activists the apparent victims of state/party violence on the 5th and 6th January, political sympathy within the country must have been strongly with the BNP. However, over the course of the following two weeks, a lot of this must have been lost. With continuous front page/TV pictures of terribly burned bodies, the government was justifiably able to argue that it was dealing with a form of terrorism which needed to be dealt with through law and order measures, and not by political compromise. And many people, not just the AL supporters, will have agreed. From being a political party with legitimate political demands that had the support of many in Bangladesh, the government was able to portray the BNP as a party apparently authorizing or turning a green light to terrorist violence. It also provides a pretext to arrest her. And apart from its effect amongst Bangladeshis, the BNP has (one would imagine) rather disgraced itself with the international community.

    This was a lesson that the BNP should have learnt from the picket violence at the end of 2013 where similarly it lost political support, and the government was also at that time able to portray the party, quite rightly, as apparently countenancing terrorist violence.

    Of course the BNP and its supporters have denied the party’s involvement in the violence – but if this was really so, then where was the BNP’s clear instructions to its activists not to get involved in such bombings that put people’s lives at risk? And where was the outrage and clear and unequivocal condemnations of the violence when these incidents happened? And, if it was not their own activists doing it, where was the recognition that that bombings was hurting the party politically? (It is true that there is no hard evidence that opposition pickets – or those instructed by them – were involved – though the injuries to the recent ‘bomb-maker’, a BNP student activist, is highly suggestive.)

    4. But opposition picket violence is not as damaging to the BNP as one would expect.
    One might expect that BNP’s alleged complicity in violence would severely weaken the party. Whilst no doubt it has impacted upon those in the middle ground of politics, there are reasons why many observers think that it does not do them any long term harm.

    First of all there is sufficient murkiness about who is actually responsible that people can convince themselves that the BNP were not involved in it.

    Secondly, the government’s response to the violence will be seen by some as overly politicized; in immediately condemning and filing cases against BNP political leaders when investigations have not taken place and substantive evidence seems not to exist.

    Third, it is simply accepted by many that political conflict in Bangladesh will include violence of this kind – and so these kinds of violent incidents are already factored into their support of the BNP. Do remember for example that even though the BNP government was alleged to have been involved in the attempted killing of Sheikh Hasina in 2004, which killed two dozen AL supporters, and the leaders are under trial for this crime, the BNP throughout most of 2013 were riding high in the polls.

    Fourth, the Awami League does not come with clean hands. Whilst in opposition, its protests also resulted in violence (i.e 2004 bus arson that killed 11 people), and whilst in government there have been many people killed in extra judicial killings anddisappearances allegedly carried out by law enforcement authorities. So people think that though this spate of violence is terrible, the Awami League are just the other side of the same coin.

    Fifth, whoever was directly responsible for the violence, it is often said that many people in Bangladesh tend to blame the government for allowing it to happen.

    And sixth, many people will recognize that however horrific the violence, the BNP have a legitimate political demand to which the government needs to respond.

    5. A conflict ‘for the survival of the BNP’?
    There are a number of different characteristics between what is going on now and what happened in 2013.

    A year ago, it was extremely clear, with an election on the horizon, what the opposition were demanding – an election with a form of caretaker government, a demand that the BNP had been making for many months earlier during 2013. Moreover, at that time the election provided a clear end date by which time either the BNP would have succeeded in stopping the elections taking place under a political government or it would not.

    However, the current political crisis has come out of nowhere. Sure 5 January 2015 was a one year anniversary of the disputed elections, and the barricade against Zia and the refusal to allow the BNP to hold a public meeting were provocations – but nonetheless, these events can not really be seen as a culmination of a political movement.

    The biggest difference though between now and 2013, is that, for the BNP, this is not just a fight for a set of political demands but a fight for its very existence. It has been the BNP’s view for some months that the Awami League had a clear strategy of seeking to destroy the  party, and that it had to act very soon to avoid this. As one influential BNP leader explained to me in November 2013,  the strategy of the government was first to lodge cases against dozens of its leaders and  then convict them in order to prevent them from taking part in the elections. The leader went onto say that the government would then announce that it would hold interim elections (in which the convicted BNP leaders could not legally take part), and create huge tensions in the party about whether to participate – with some leaders wanting to take part and others (who had convictions) not wanting it to. This he said risked breaking the BNP up into pieces.

    This may well of course have been a misperception on the part of the BNP (though it is certainly true that many cases have been lodged against many of its leaders, and there certainly has been a push to get these cases completed quickly), but whether right or wring, this was certainly what BNP leaders were thinking. The party therefore felt that it had to take action soon to prevent the government strategy succeeding. This is significant now as it makes the opposition more resolute in continuing with its programme as it feels that unless it wins it will be destroyed, and therefore makes an end to the conflict that much more difficult.

    6. There is no end in sight.
    Not only do the BNP see this as a fight for the party’s survival, but Khaleda Zia is apparently adamant about seeing these protests through to the end. According to BNP insiders, Khaleda Zia believes that she made one key mistake during the 2013 blockades and that was not to continue with them after the 5 January 2014 election. It is apparently her view that at that time, she took her foot of the pedal, hoping that international pressure would be exerted on the government to hold new elections, but that all it helped do was to allow the government to consolidate its power, whilst international pressure on the government did not materialize. According to BNP insiders, Khaleda Zia is now adamant that she will not ‘give in’ this time. Of course, the recent death of her son might affect her resolve.

    At the same time an Awami League compromise is unlikely. Just as the BNP is in no mood to compromise, nor is the Awami League. The party was able to withstand much greater pressure in 2013 (for the re-establishment of a caretaker system prior to the election) which included at that time pressure from a highly active international community, including the United Nations. With no legal requirement to hold elections until 2019, and holding all the levers of state power which it is using to their full extent, it is difficult to see why the government will not be able to ride out similar pressure this time.

    Moreover, many independent observers suspect that the Awami League fears that free and fair elections could well result in a BNP victory and is aware that after the many repressive measures it has taken against the opposition parties over its six years in power, it risks suffering retribution if the BNP does come back to power. For the Awami League the status quo must remain.

    7. It remains unclear about what impact this current blockade is having and whether the government can pacify the protests. 
    Different commentators say different things about the impact of the blockade. It is certainly true that lack of transport on the main highways is creating significant losses to the economy, and many ordinary activities including schools are affected. It is also true that whilst life in Dhaka may in general appear to be relatively unaffected (in that the city is nearly as busy as normal) outside Dhaka the blockade is apparently having more of an impact. Nonetheless, so far the blockade does not seem to be having as much as an impact as the siege in November/December 2013.

    One reason for the relative lack of success of the siege is the actions of the governments to pacify it. According to the police, over 7000 opposition activists – with the BNP saying many thousands more – have been arrested. There have been extra judicial killingswhich will also have frightened many opposition activists from taking part. The government is also taking other innovative actions – the closing of internet messaging services (though these have now come back in service), a ban on pillion riding on motorcycles, and announcing rewards for those who can given information on those involved in the violence.

    The government’s law enforcement strategies have certainly weakened the opposition’s ability to carry out the blockade, but it remains unclear whether they can beat it down to such an extent that the so-called ‘blockade’ becomes ineffective. Many of the current ‘picketing’ activities by the opposition, appear to be hit and run affairs, carried out by a small number of people, and are difficult to police.  Even if the law enforcing authorities become increasingly successful, the opposition parties could carry out a low level ‘insurrection’ for quite some time. We will have to wait and see.

    8. BNP’s play for the army? 
    Whenever conflicts in Bangladesh like this emerge questions always are raised about whether the army will intervene or not, which of course it did in January 2007. And right now, unless the government can ‘succeed’ in quelling the violence (which it could well do to a great extent) there appears little hope that the current conflict can be completely brought to an end without third party intervention, which of course is the army.

    There are of course many many reasons why the army will not intervene. First, it has been well looked after by the government – buying hardware, and providing it contracts. The status quo is good for it, so why make a change? Secondly, the general assumption is that the army would only consider intervening if the level of violence exceeded a particularly high level – a level that is significantly higher than that of January 2007, and far worse than the situation is now. Third, the army will be aware that its reputation was somewhat tarnished by its time ‘in power’ in 2007-9, which will make it particularly reluctant to intervene and therefore would almost certainly require significant sections of the public calling publicly, with rallies in the streets, for the army to take notice. Fourth, any army intervention (unless it was a real full on coup) would almost certainly require a green light from the international community, and this would not be as straightforward to obtain as January 2007, when by some accounts the UN actually sought army intervention, and which now many view as a mistake.

    However, it is difficult to see what the BNP is now playing for – other than army intervention. The Awami League government is certainly not going to concede to the BNP’s demands, and so the opposition’s only hope is army intervention, which might explain why the party has little trouble with violence on the streets, as this is a required precursor.