Bangladesh’s Choice: Authoritarianism or Extremism

Election posters on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday. After being in power for a decade, the Awami League faces serious anti-incumbent feelings. Credit Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Election posters on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday. After being in power for a decade, the Awami League faces serious anti-incumbent feelings. Credit Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Elections in Bangladesh are never tame. There were boycotts during the last parliamentary election in 2014, and voting-day violence killed some 20 people. The one before that, in December 2008, was notable for having taken place at all: Originally scheduled for January 2007, it was postponed after a military-backed coup and street battles that shut down the country.

This year again, in the lead-up to the next parliamentary election on Sunday, violent skirmishes have broken out between supporters of the two main camps, the incumbent Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.). Fatalities remain lower so far than in the past, but the stakes of this race are no less high: At bottom, this election is a contest between two forms of authoritarianism — only one is more dangerous than the other.

Bangladesh, one of the largest Muslim-majority nations in the world, has done well in major respects. Its economy has grown at an average rate of about 7 percent for several years. It performs better than its bigger neighbors, India and Pakistan, on development indicators like gender parity and school enrollment. At the same time, its democratic culture has been corroded, including by the steady erosion of fundamental rights.

Since the advent of democracy in 1991, the Awami League and the B.N.P. have essentially been trading places running the country. The ruling Awami League is pinning its hopes for being re-elected again on its development record and secular credentials. (Disclosure: one of my brothers is a member of Parliament and is running on the party’s ticket.) But after a decade in power, and two consecutive terms, it faces serious anti-incumbent feelings. Its heavy-handed suppression of student protests earlier in the year and crackdowns on dissenting voices have only intensified that wariness. Since 2009, the government has decimated the opposition with politically motivated lawsuits and arrests, and even extrajudicial disappearances and murders.

And so one may wonder if granting the Awami League a third term now would fatally weaken democracy in Bangladesh. Is it time to give the B.N.P. another chance?

The B.N.P. has a dark record of stoking religious extremism. It has long been allied with the violent Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami. During the B.N.P.’s last term in power, between 2001 and 2006, bombings by Islamists multiplied. In 2004, extremists linked to the party attacked an Awami League rally with grenades in an attempt to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, then the opposition leader, now the prime minister. (More than 20 people were killed and hundreds were injured.) A former Awami League finance minister was killed the following year. Terrorist groups like Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Bangladesh also flourished under the B.N.P.’s political cover.

It is true that the Awami League has resorted to forms of street agitation and shutdowns — notably when the B.N.P. has refused to step down from power — and those have sometimes led to violent confrontations. Yet it has not deliberately targeted ordinary citizens. The B.N.P.-Jamaat alliance, on the other hand, has set out to kill and injure innocent people — for example, by attacking buses with petrol bombs in 2013 and 2015 — in vain hopes of toppling the government through terror and chaos.

The B.N.P. seemed to acquire a veneer of respectability recently, after Kamal Hossain, a renowned 82-year-old lawyer and a former Awami League cabinet minister, decided to form a coalition ticket with it in the upcoming election, under the joint banner National Unity Front. Mr. Hossain is an unlikely partner for the party: He helped draft Bangladesh’s secular constitution in 1972 and has urged the B.N.P. to sever ties with Jamaat-e-Islami. But if he joined forces with the B.N.P. banking that the association might temper the party, he is unlikely to prevail: The party nominated 25 Jamaat political leaders to run in the election, out of a total of 300 seats in contest. There is little reason to believe that the B.N.P.’s worst tendencies have changed.

There also is little reason to believe that a B.N.P.-led coalition would, say, benefit the economy. Just one example: During its last stint in power, the B.N.P. increased the country’s power output by only a negligible amount. The Awami League tripled it over the last decade.

The question facing voters this weekend essentially comes down to this: Would changing governments just for the sake of change be good for democracy in Bangladesh? No. Not given the B.N.P.’s known support for political and religious extremism. On Sunday, Bangladeshi voters will have to pick one of two very imperfect options. Yet the choice is clear.

K. Anis Ahmed is a writer based in Bangladesh and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune.

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