Friday, December 28, 2018

Is it time to give the BNP another chance?

Awami League activists campaigning 
With my father-in-law, Dr Kamal Hossain deciding (surprisingly) a couple of months ago to lead the opposition alliance, I have kept away from writing professionally about this election and restricted my thoughts to this blog, focusing primarily on polls and the issue of the fairness of the election.

However, I thought I should write at least one article considering the merits of the two competing party blocs.

As I was writing this post, Anis Ahmed's op-ed for the New York Times,  Bangladesh’s Choice: Authoritarianism or Extremism popped into my in-tray, so I shall set out my thoughts on the two party blocs through reviewing his article.

Setting up the Awami League
The NYT article asks whether granting the Awami League a third term now "would fatally weaken democracy in Bangladesh" and whether it is "time to give the [opposition] Bangladesh Nationalist Party another chance?"

His answer: "No. Not given the B.N.P.’s known support for political and religious extremism."

Ahmed's op ed is a version of an earlier article which he published a few days ago in the Hindu. There are however some significant differences between the two - presumably forced on Ahmed by the NYT's editors who wanted a bit more accuracy and balance. 

First, unlike in the Hindu, the NYT article acknowledges that his brother is standing as a member of parliament for the Awami League. Nice of him to tell us! Perhaps he should also have added that his family business, Gemcom group, is a significant financial beneficiary of the Awami League, as the largest supplier of concrete electricity polls to the government.* Ahmed is a director and chief strategy officer of the group.

Secondly, his description of the Awami League's "negatives" has been amended. In the Hindu article, this was as far as Ahmed went:
"A swathe of the public ... has grown weary of the Awami League’s heavy-handed rule, which was sorely on display during two rounds of student protests earlier this year. The Awami League also passed a needlessly harsh Digital Security Bill earlier this year."
If "heavy handed rule" is all the Awami League was accused off, one would wonder where the widespread criticism of the party came from. In the NYT, he has however been forced to be rather more honest, noting the "crackdowns on dissenting voices" and how:
 "the government has decimated the opposition with politically motivated lawsuits and arrests, and even extrajudicial disappearances and murders."
This is rather more accurate. However, even these addition fails to spell out the full reality of the Awami League role in "weakening" democracy in Bangladesh (as Ahmed puts it). This list would include: 

- the political party's take-over of every single independent institution from the police to the election commission; 

- the end of any form of judicial independence in the country. Earlier this year, the government forced the Chief Justice to retire as he gave a decision against the government. (The government's military intelligence agency threatened to kill a friend of the chief justice, whom the agency had secretly detained, if the CJ did not resign.) Magistrates and district courts never give bail when the government does not want them to do so; and the politically partisan nature of higher courts makes independent judicial decision making close to impossible

- the near total control of independent media; the government continues to enforced a boycott by the largest advertisers of the country of the two most independent minded newspapers. This was first introduced in 2015 but continues. The editors of one of these papers has dozens of cases filed against him by pro-government activists. Hundreds of citizens including dozens of journalist, have also been detained for months for publishing criticisms against the government.

- increasing endemic corruption. The costs of the Padma bridge construction have at least tripledaccording to the world bank, the country has the highest per kilometre cost of road building in the world ($7 million/km compared to $1.1 to 1.6 million in India and China). Private banks are taken over by pro-government businessmen; $500 million bank-scams; and the restructuring of bank loans involving politically connected businessmen are just some examples.

BNP's Crimes and Misdemeanors
The second part of Ahmed's article sets out the BNP's crimes and misdeeds. There is no doubt that a litany of serious criticisms can legitimately be laid at the BNP's when it was in power - and indeed at times during the last nine years when opposition - and Ahmed sets out the allegations against them perfectly reasonably.

However, one point of comparison Ahmed makes is questionable - claiming that the BNP, unlike the AL, has "deliberately targeted ordinary citizens." Whilst the BNP was widely accused of arson attack on members of the public in 2015 (as reported in this blog), the AL in 2004 did the same, killing 13 in a single bus attack. Moreover, whilst in government, the hundreds of extra-judicial killings and disappearances and tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests in recent years under the Awami League government has not only been focused on the opposition, but also "ordinary citizens" (not linked to politics). 

Also, whilst Ahmed rightly states that the BNP continues to have an arrangement with the Jamaat-e-Islami, allowing 25 members of the islamist party to stand under the BNP's symbol, his view of the Jamaat is questionable. 

Ahmed calls the Jamaat a "violent Islamist party." Islamist it certainly is, and 45 years ago was involved in collaborating with the Pakistan military in the war of independence. But where is the evidence that Jamaat-e-Islami is now a "violent" party - or, lets put it another way: Where is the evidence that it is anywhere near as violent as the student wing of the Awami league which for the last nine years has been the new violent gang on the bloc.

Of course, secularists are rightly critical of the Jamaat as an islamic fundamentalist party, but what about the Awami League's current alliance with Hefazet-e-Islami, which has a far more regressive conservative islamic set of positions - almost making the Jamaat look like a progressive party in comparison. It was not long ago that the Awami League government killed over 40 Hefazet-e-Islami supporters accusing them of seeking to bring the government down. Now however, Hefazet has become a true friend of the Awami League. And the Awami League is supporting Saudi Arabia's huge investment in mosques throughout the country.

Ahmed is correct to say that "voters will have to pick one of two very imperfect options." 

But the way Ahmed articulates the choice between these two political parties is wrong. I would put it like this: Do people want five more years of a government that has certainly in the last nine years brought stability and a solid economic record but has also systematically destroyed democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and appears unwilling to change course? Or give a chance to another party, which has certainly screwed things up in the past, and brings with it significant risks, but could take the country on a more positive tack.

However, whatever people's decision may be to this question - the answer is already known. 

This is because of one thing that Ahmed completely fails to is mention in his article - how in the months, weeks and days running up to polling day the government has used the police to suppress any political campaigning by the opposition. Ahmed states in his article that there have been violent skirmishes between supporters of the two main political camps, giving the impression that it is just two parties fighting each other equally - when the reality, as reported by Human Rights Watch is that the government has used its student wing and the police to relentlessly attack the opposition election campaign, and continue to arrest hundreds of opposition activists. 

As a result, in many parts of the country, the opposition can't even come out of their house - yet alone campaign. The whole purpose of this is to make opposition supporters scared of coming out to vote for them. Indeed many Awami League candidates are saying brazenly to their activists that that they should only allow those who support them to come to the voting centres.

As a result, though not a single vote has been counted, the Awami League government can be confident that it has successfully rigged the election by ensuring that only a fraction of those who support the opposition candidates will be able or brave enough to come out to vote.

If only the party that Ahmed so supports would allow people of Bangladesh a free choice in the vote to come - so they could make up their minds on the future course of the country.

* added.

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