Where does Bangladesh go from here?

david bergman

by David Bergman

The prime minister Sheikh Hasina has reconstituted and downsized her cabinet including an additional number of Jatiya Party members of parliament (who were previously part of the current government’s alliance). The Bangladesh Nationalist Party has refused the Awami League’s invitation to take part. No other opposition party politician is (as yet) part of this new cabinet – which the Awami League is calling an ‘all-party’ government.

Putting to one side the rights and wrongs of the different party positions, where is this all going to take Bangladesh, with elections due by 24 January, and the BNP currently refusing to participate?

It is a fast moving situation, but below are various scenarios of what could happen, with an assessment of how likely they will do so.

1. The BNP decides to take part in the government/elections

This could feasibly happen following (a) a breakthrough in negotiations (which have still yet to even start); (a) a major concession by the AL government (for example, the prime minster could suddenly decide to resign her position), or (c) the BNP suddenly thinking that they could actually win the election.

Right now these are all rather unlikely eventualities.

Re (a): It appears that the time for negotiation and concessions is over – despite the urging of the international community and national groups. The BNP’s formal position is that they will only take part in elections under a caretaker government, and the government has absolutely ruled that out. Privately, however, the BNP state that they would be willing to consider taking part in an all party government, as long as Sheikh Hasina resigns and hands over her power to some other person. But, it is highly unlikely that the prime minister would consider resigning – there is simply too much at stake for her to do so – and it may well require a constitutional change to allow this to happen (which the AL government has rejected).

So even if negotiations took place (which is perhaps just about possible with Khaleda’s last ditch effort in asking the president to intervene, though the day after that, it appears from Hasina’s comments in parliament that the president went on anyway to ask the prime minister to administer the poll-time government) it is difficult to see how any accomodation could take place between the parties. Moreover, time is very short – with the government about to announce a time table for the election.

Re (b): A possible – though somewhat unlikely move – is for the prime minster to make some kind of galant concession shortly before the elections which would make it difficult for the BNP to refuse. This would be strategically clever for the AL (which has over the last few months generally outwitted the BNP) since it would suggest flexibility on her part and place the BNP in a difficult position – since to refuse it might look bad. However, even if such a move was made (itself unlikely) it is difficult to see how the BNP would  consider accepting such an offer at such a late stage, as they would view it as a trap when they were not prepared for the election. (It should be noted that in the 2008 elections, the BNP did not agree to participate in it until late in the process – and they were arguably ill-prepared to fight it which perhaps in part explains their poor performance.)

Re (c): July and September opinion polls have shown positive figures for the BNP – leading by between 11 and 15 percent. Moreover, a survey done by the Daily Star/Asia Foundation also in September suggested that the BNP had a lead of almost double the AL – and even though there are reasons not to trust the figures from this particular poll, it is much quoted by BNP leaders who seem to believe it. These positive numbers could result in the BNP thinking – even though more recent internal AL polls suggest that the BNP’s lead is being whittled down – that whatever doubts they may have about the Awami League being in power whilst holding the elections and their ability to manipulate the results, their lead is too big for the AL to manipulate. Arguably this could have the advantage of unsettling the AL’s strategy if it is true that they have never wanted or expected a competitive election.

However, such is the distrust held by the BNP  towards the AL (and apparently in particular held by Khaleda Zia) this is not a decision that the BNP is likely to take

2. The BNP prevents elections under current election time government taking place

BNP’s key strategy now is to prevent the elections taking place under the election time government set up by Sheikh Hasina. Can they do this?

It is very likely that we are in for a significant number of hartals, road blockades as well as other political demonstrations, and the government will do everything it can to confront this so that political violence does not make it impossible for the election preparations to be undertaken properly.

In 1996, a similar situation took place*, with the two main parties in opposite roles than they are today (ironically, it is only the Jamaat-e-Islami that has remained consistent out of all four main parties). Here is a summary of what happened then.

In 1991, after the fall of General Ershard which took place the previous year, the BNP won elections under a hastily put together caretaker government formula in which the acting chief justice was appointed vice-president to hold elections following which he was allowed to return to his post in the judiciary.

However, during its time in power the party’s widely perceived rigging of by-elections in Mirpur in 1993 and then particularly in Magura in 1994 resulted in the then opposition parties – the Awami League, the Jatiya Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami – demanding that there be a change in the constitution to allow for the permanent introduction of a pre-election care-taker government. 

The BNP refused. The opposition parties left parliament and launched a huge movement against the government, which included at the end large numbers of civil servants coming out onto the streets and being involved in protests. The BNP dissolved parliament and elections had to take place within 3 months. Before the election the government and opposition parties came to an oral unsigned agreement that after the elections, the new parliament (it had to be the new one as the current one had been dissolved) would change the constitution allowing for a pre-election caretaker government to hold power three months before national elections. In effect the opposition parties had won.

The BNP held a general election in February 1996 which all the main opposition parties boycotted. Other than the BNP, only the Freedom Party, and around 40 to 50 barely known small parties participated. The BNP won all 300 seats, with an official voter turnout of about 26 percent. Even though there was this agreement between the parties, the Awami  League and its opposition party continued to boycott the election and did everything on the election day and before it to keep the voter turnout low in order to ensure that the BNP could not backtrack on the agreed decision. Officially, the voter turnout was only 26 percent

It was not immediately clear after the elections whether the BNP would stick to its deal but but after some weeks the constitution was changed and new elections were called.

One issue is whether the BNP is well organised and strong enough to get enough people on the streets to make a difference? On this point the following needs to be taken into account: (a) The BNP is known to be  organisationally weak, much weaker than the AL who – with the added assistance of both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party – were able before the February 1996 election to obtain the caretaker concession from the BNP government as discussed above; (b) Moreover BNP supporters tend not to be able to match the ideological enthusiasm of AL supporters – with, it being often said, that the most important thing that joins BNP supporters together is their opposition to the Awami League.

So there is some doubt whether the BNP is strong enough to mount a movement that could force a change of mind by the Awami League – particularly since they have failed to achieve this in the last few months. Added to these difficulties will be the possible arrests of BNP leaders (following hartal violence and similar incidents) which will make it more difficult for the party to organise themselves. The BNP of course has the support of the Jamaat-e-islami who are known to be the real ideologically committed street fighters but whether there is enough of them to make a difference is not clear.

BNP politicians point out that the situation in Dhaka – where during the hartal, BNP supporters are notable for their absence – is not the same for the rest Bangladesh, where they argue that there is more apparent and visible support for their party. In Dhaka, they point to party divisions inhibiting organisation, and in particular a large police force that is highly partial to the Awami League. That may be the case, but in the end Dhaka is crucial for the BNP to be able to ‘control.’

Unfortunately, the amount of violence will be key – and whilst the Awami League will do everything to avoid having to cave into the BNP, it is possible (though this is very speculative) that if the violence reaches a particular pitch, it could call a state of emergency or the army could intervene (see below about army).

With the government extremely determined to hold these elections, it seems unlikely that the BNP will be able themselves to force any change before an election.

Election observation: One issue that might be significant in this pre-election period is whether or not the EU and the USA decide to send election observers to Bangladesh. Government officials say that they – or more accurately the Election Commission – will only give invitations to the EU/US if the countries first confirm that they will actually accept the invitation; for the government this is important as accepting the invitation would strongly imply that the the observers accept in principle that credible elections can  take place without the BNP. Of course, the observers could leave at any time prior to the election – but their departure would then likely be linked to ongoing violence in the country, and not the issue of non-participatory election credibility.

If, in the current situation, election observers are sent, this would appear to be a blow to BNP, and give some advantage to the AL. An added complexity is that unless the international community has observers present, it will not find it easy to determine whether or not the official voter turnout figures were fair or not, or generally comment on the election that took place. This could be important as, voter turnout will be an important factor in determining the international community’s final view on the elections (see below).There may also be a cost issue here; the US/EU may not want to spend money on observers in January 2014, when they think that within months there may be another election to observe.

Pressure on BNP politicians to peel away: The BNP has so far held strongly together in its boycott decision – but it is notable that there are BNP leaders who think that because of the positive opinion polls, it is in their interest to participate in the election, and they are worried that unless the BNP does participate, the party could subsequenly be severely weakened and never be in a position to resume power again. (A recent piece in the Economist alludes to this.) If BNP politicians – or members of the BNP alliance – do decide to run as independents or part of a newly formed party that has recently obtained  election commission recognition – and the Awami League is doing everything it can to pressure/induce some opposition leaders to take part – this could weaken the BNP’s overall position, which is something to watch out for.

3. The prime minister calls a state of emergency


The prime minister/president decides to proclaim a state of emergency because of the violence/instablity in the country. Section 141A says that a state of emergency can be called for a maximum of 120 days if the ‘President is satisfied that a grave emergency exists in which the security or economic life of Bangladesh, or any part thereof, is threatened by war or external aggression or internal disturbance.’ It goes onto say that ‘the prior counter signature of the Prime Minister’ is required.  In order for this to be lawful, the army must be under civilian control.

This is a possible strategy that the government could use if running the country becomes untenable – but they do not want to give in to the BNP demands. She  calls a state of emergency, postposes the elections, and runs the country for some months in this situation. This is an option that was recently suggested could happen by General Muniruzzaman when he gave evidence to the US Congress (House of Representatives) Sub committee on Asia and the Pacific of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

This is probably a more likely response by the government to instability, than it accepting the demands of the opposition

4. Other kinds of intervention by the army

In discussions about the future of Bangladesh, the issue of the army is ever present – the third force in Bangladesh so to speak. In January 2007, during the last election cycle, when the BNP was in power and the AL had decided not to take part in the election, the army did decide to intervene, and installed a new caretaker government over which it had a great deal of control. The army stayed in control for two years – the length of time it said was necessary for a new electoral roll to be prepared and for ID cards to be created (though of course it did many other things as well). After the two year period, elections were held. Could anything like this happen again in Bangladesh?

There are few institutions in Bangladesh as opaque and subject to more speculation that the army – so one should tread carefully before predicting how it may or may not react.

There appear to be two possible ways in which the army could intervene – a soft and a hard coup

Soft Coup: Just as the army intervened in 2007, the army could persuade the prime minister/president to sign a proclamation of emergency – and although the civilian government would theoretically be in control, the army would in call many of the shots.

One way this could be brought about is through pressure on the army from the international community – which has one key lever over it – its ongoing peace keeping duties which is extremely remunerative for army officers. It has been reported that it was the threat of the UN pulling the Bangladesh army officers from peace keeping duties that was used as leverage to get the army to intervene in the way it did in 2007.

This is not a likely an outcome as 2007, where the army in the end got their fingers burnt. Moreover, the Chief of Army Staff, Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan is a man understood to have limited interest in politics and by all accounts the Awami League government is confident that he and other officers are not interested in such an intervention.

However, the army may be forced to act, if the situation of law and order in the country reached a very high threshold.

It is also possible that rather than the army actually intervening formally it could use a threat of intervention to pressure the government to find a compromise that would bring the BNP into elections.

A proper amy coup: This would be a military take over without any constitutional niceties. There is not much to say about this but at present this must be seen as a very unlikely scenario.

5. After elections, BNP forces new government to step down and hold new elections.  
 
Assuming that the current government was able to conduct the elections by 24 January, with the AL presumably winning a majority of the seats, and setting itself up as the new government, what happens then? Can the government sustain itself and for how long?

Assuming the election takes place, the opposition party will want to try and keep the voter turnout as low as possible to discredit the election in the eyes both of people in Bangladesh and the outside world, and then create a situation in which the AL has no other choice but to agree to hold new elections under a caretaker government system.

In the February 1996 election*, there was officially a 26 percent voter turnout. One should note the differences that do exist between the 1996 and the current situation which will affect voter turnout
– in 1996 it had been reported in the national newspaper that there was a deal between the two parties that the post February 1996 parliament would change the constitution to introduce provisions for a new election time caretaker government, and that after that new elections would take place. At that time, other than state run BTV there was no other TV station in Bangladesh, so people were not as well informed as they are now. Nonetheless a significant proportion of people would have known that a second election was going to take place so would likely to have decided that there anyway was no point in voting for this one
– the Awami League has this time been able to get the third largest party – the Jatiya party – to participate in the elections.

These two aspects may matter as they could well mean that people viewing the elections more favorably than in 1996 and boost the turnout which will be key to the legitimacy of the election – both within Bangladesh and by the international community.

The turnout: Assuming diplomats have decided that lack of participation of the BNP is not the decisive factor in assessing credibility of the election, turnout is likely to determine the final view taken by the international diplomats. Though of course if there is a low turnout, diplomats may want to take into account the reason for it – whether is is the result of violent intimidation by the BNP/Jamaat or the free choice of the voters.

It is unclear how high the turnout must be in order for the election to be considered legitimate. Recent elections in Bangladesh have a high turnout; in 2001 it was 76 percent, and in 2008 it was 80 percent. A third more people could decide not to vote in the election and there would still be a healthy turnout if compared to the turnout in Western countries where voter numbers are relatively low. (In the last two presidential elections in the US, the voter turnout was 57 percent and in the last two general elections in UK it was 65 and 61 percent.)

In considering issues of credibility, should one be comparing the voter turnout at the forthcoming elections to Bangladesh’s historic levels or to the levels in other countries? It is likely that around 50 percent is likely to be considered the magic number. If more than 50 percent of voters turnout, the international community (all things being equal) is likely to look upon the elections relatively favorably. However, the lower the turnout drops below 50 percent, the less credible the elections will be viewed.

Negative views by diplomats about the turnout would obviously assist the BNP in their arguments to force the AL government to hold new elections – but it is unlikely that on their own they will be decisive in weakening the resolve of the AL, particularly considering the current government’s rather negative view about the urgings of ‘Western’ diplomats. One should note of course that talk of sanctions is suddenly in the air in the hard hitting New York Time editorial, which could result in far more pressure being exerted on the government

Civil Servants: In 1996, it was the civil servants joining protests against the new government which helped trigger the BNP’s decision to capitulate. It seems unlikely right now that this could happen – the government has taken great efforts to reward those at the top of the civil service with large numbers of promotions (even though no positions are actually available). In relation to the police, again apart from having ensured that a lot of the newly recruited police are AL student wing supporters, the government has also recently provided the police additional stipends, and improvements in rank. But for the BNP to succeed it may well need the administration to turn against the AL, and that does not look likely.

6. Conclusion

Whilst it is difficult to see what might in practice trigger the new AL government agreeing to new elections under some kind of neutral government system – either before or after the elections – it is also hard to see how a new AL government coming into power after the elections can continue for too long on the basis of elections in which the BNP have not taken part.

One thing I think is clear is that unless the government becomes hugely autocratic and comes down very hard on any dissent, it is difficult to see that the new government will stay in power for anywhere near its full five term.

However, these are matters that the Sheikh Hasina is not likely to be considering right now.

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* 23 Nov 2013: This section has been amended to correct the timing of when the BNP made its concession to bring in a caretaker government. In an earlier version it was stated to have been after the February 1996 election, but in fact as now stated it was before the election.