Bangladesh could face a protracted political crisis in the lead-up to the 2013 elections unless Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government changes course and takes a more conciliatory approach towards the political opposition and the military. In December 2008, following two years of a military-backed caretaker government, the Awami League (AL) secured a landslide victory in what were widely acknowledged to be the fairest elections in the country’s history. The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalise democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Three and a half years on, hope has been replaced by deep disillusionment, as two familiar threats to Bangladesh’s democracy have returned: the prospect of election-related violence and the risks stemming from an unstable and hostile military.
Instead of changing the old pattern of politics, the AL government has systematically used parliament, the executive and the courts to reinforce it, including by filing corruption cases against Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, and employing security agencies to curb opposition activities. Most worrying, however, is the AL-dominated parliament’s adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, which scraps a provision mandating the formation of a neutral caretaker administration to oversee general elections. The caretaker system was a major practical and psychological barrier to election-rigging by the party in power. Removing it has undermined opposition parties’ confidence in the electoral system.
The fifteenth amendment carries other dangers as well. For example, anyone who criticises the constitution may now be prosecuted for sedition; new procedures have rendered further amendments virtually impossible; and the death penalty is prescribed for plotting to overthrow an elected government – a thinly veiled warning to the military, which has done so four times in as many decades.
The fallout from these changes is already clear. The BNP gave an ultimatum to the government to reinstate the caretaker system by 10 June 2012 or face battles in the streets. To this end, it rallied 100,000 supporters in Dhaka in March for a protest that turned violent. With the deadline passed and no action from the government, it is now calling for nationwide political agitation. A BNP-led boycott of the 2013 general elections may be in the offing.
Meanwhile, the military is visibly restive. On 19 January, it announced it had foiled a coup by mid-level and retired officers who sought to install an Islamist government. This followed an assassination attempt on an AL member of parliament in October 2009 by mid-level officers seething over the deaths of 57 officers in a mutiny by their subordinate paramilitary border guards the previous February. Large-scale dismissals, forced retirements, deepening politicisation and a heavy-handed approach to curb dissent and root out militants have created an unstable and undisciplined force. While a top-level coup is unlikely, the prospect of mid-level officers resorting to violence to express their suppressed anger is increasingly high.
Should the situation deteriorate to the point that the army again decides to intervene, it is unlikely to be content to prop up civilian caretakers and map a course to fresh elections as it did in 2007. This time the generals could be expected to have more staying power, not to mention less reluctance to carry out “minus two” – their previous plan to remove Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics.
Even if such a worst-case scenario seems remote, it is clear that a new electoral stalemate threatens to erode Bangladesh’s democratic foundations.
Dhaka/Brussels 13 June 2012