Saturday, June 08, 2013

Wonderboy and Wondergirls

Former President General (rtd) HM Ershad has an interesting record to his name. Once ousted, hardly any military dictator or his party has ever fared well in a free and fair election across the world. Ershad is an exception. In the election that was held after his ouster in a bloody mass upsurge, Ershad's Jatya Party (JP) won 35 seats. The former dictator, then imprisoned on an array of corruption charges, won all the five seats he contested, a feat he shared with only Khaleda Zia in the 1991 elections.

I have always been amazed the way Ershad runs his trade, and during the last caretaker government's term in office I interviewed the former military strongman. He lamented the fact that his party MP hopefuls were not allowed to work in the run up to the first election since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Strange it may sound, his allegations were true--JP faced an unofficial ban at that time, and Ershad's popularity was one of the reasons why Khaleda nodded to the idea of amending the constitution to reintroduce Westminster-style government.

It might be why Bangladesh's new constitution that brought back parliamentary form of democracy vests the Prime Minister with power that only a Mughal emperor can outmatch. Add to that is her absolute power in the party where she handpicks her presidium/central committee members. In the councils of both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party it is Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia who were 'trusted' by the councillors with the responsibility of choosing members of both the parties' highest policymaking bodies.

The irony does not escape us: even though both the parties and their leaders talk about democracy in every breath they take, at heart and at home they remain all powerful autocrats. In the case of the BNP, it is not surprising at all for the party was founded at the height of General Zia's martial law. What is strange is the way the AL, the vanguard of our Liberation War, has started to entertain undemocratic practises in its fold. There's hardly any difference left now between the way the AL and the BNP are now run.    

There's however now denying that in Bangladesh politics both the ladies enjoy the status of minor deities. Is it because the electorate sees some kind of mother figure engrained in their collective consciousness? Hardly so. Hasina and Khaleda thrive for the same reason Ershad, after the fall of his autocratic rule, had garnered 11 percent votes. Ordinary Bangladeshis do not have options, their choice always shuffle back and forth between the two major parties because they were never presented with a viable alternative to the duopoly that the two ladies created in local politics.

Politics in Bangladesh has remained a messy affair; members of the civil society have always shied away from it. To make matters even more grievous, young leadership that both the parties' quasi-democratic rule is producing is heavily infected with corruption and gangsterism. Change is the order of the day. But when, and, more importantly, how? 

First published in The Daily Star on June 7, 2013

So shall you Reap

In 1852, Karl Marx wrote an essay on the French coup that took place on December 2 the previous year.  NapolĂ©on Bonaparte had just assumed dictatorial power, the national assembly was dissolved and the French Empire saw a rebirth.  Marx began the essay, Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), with: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Ironic though it may sound, 111 years after Eighteenth Brumaire, two leading ladies are about to prove Marx wrong. Or they already have done it.

It all goes back to the winter of 1995: a negotiated settlement over the caretaker government had failed, and the main opposition Awami League (AL) and Jamaat launched a non-cooperation movement to force Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government to introduce a non-party election time government. A flurry of strikes called by the two main opposition parties crippled the country's economy. The following year, Khaleda went on with a one-sided election after the opposition MPs resigned from the parliament.

The 6th parliamentary election in which the BNP won all the 300 seats did the party more harm than good. Showing an uncompromising stance while you are in opposition might help, as it earned Khaleda a lot of respect during the anti-autocracy movement in the mid and late eighties. But for the ordinary Bangladeshis, stubborn behaviour to cling onto power is a major turnoff.  

The decision to hold a one-sided election was indeed suicidal, for within four months, another general election was held, this time under a caretaker government, in which BNP bagged 116 seats, 34 short to form government. It has been a painful lesson for the party as it showed that had it not dilly-dallied over the caretaker government, it could have won 130/135 seats and forming government with Jatya Party (32 seats) wouldn’t have been impossible. Bangladesh in 2013 eerily resembles its 1996 self.

The AL it seems has not learnt from the lesson that it has so famously given to the BNP. There is no denying that the party's popularity is plummeting sharply as day passes by. A recent survey by Prothom Alo says 90 percent of ordinary Bangladeshis support reinstatement of the caretaker government system and almost the same number of people think the country's present situation is bad. In fact, the AL would have fared really well if it had reintroduced caretaker and went for snap polls in January this year--the party and its allies had the chance of winning single majority in the parliament. That possibility is running slim now. Ordinary Bangladeshis want their votes to matter; at the same time they want all the political players to be present in the electoral process.

Given the acrimony that both the parties share with each other, it will be impossible to run a government if both of them have equal presence in the cabinet. The 5+5+1 formula which suggests the formation of an interim government led by five elected MPs each from AL and BNP and Sheikh Hasina/President/Speaker as its head might fall flat because of the ever pervasive mistrust in Bangladesh politics.
In fact, the situation is graver than it used to be in 1996. A string of scandals, coupled with violence and the advent of Shahbag and Hefazat-e-Islam, have made Bangladesh look like an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, which its political actors are inept at solving.  Failure of this kind is unpardonable and the politicians might not find it so pleasant when such vacuum is filled. 

First published in The Daily Star on May 31, 2013