This coming January, Bangladesh will go to the polls to elect a government for the fifth time since military rule ended in 1990. During each past election, apart from the discredited February 1996 poll, strong anti-incumbency sentiment has resulted in a change of government, thereby allowing the two main parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to alternate in power. Despite a strong record of formal democracy, both Bangladeshi and international analysts are expressing strong concerns about January’s polls. Many fear that the results will be so marred by violence and corruption as to render them unacceptable. Some even worry that the existing situation may disallow the possibility of an election at all.
Politics, like much else in Bangladesh, has always been characterised by violence. After the bloody War of Independence in 1971, the country’s first two prime ministers, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, were both assassinated. Between 1974 and 1990, the country was governed largely under states of emergency or martial law. Intertwined political and familial histories have subsequently blighted the country’s political landscape. Even as the upcoming election looms, the leaders of the two main political parties – the AL’s Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Mujibur Rahman) and the BNP’s Begum Khaleda Zia (wife of Ziaur Rahman) – are not able to so much as have a talk together about the national state of affairs.
The past three decades of deep personal animosity between the two leaders has stifled political discourse in Bangladesh generally. The Parliament is routinely boycotted by the opposition, so issues are fought out street-side through anti-government general strikes. Though these have become increasingly frequent, and perhaps more violent, in recent years, the pattern of the opposition eschewing dialogue in Parliament in favour of confrontation on the streets has held true no matter who sits in power.
Despite the uncertain political climate, Bangladesh has enjoyed an enviable growth rate averaging five percent over the past several years. However, rising economic performance has also resulted in an increasing polarisation between the country’s rich and poor – an inequality that potentially adds to instability. Penniless beggars stand outside Bashundhara City, the mega-mall in central Dhaka that is claimed to be the largest shopping complex in Southasia. In rural areas, meanwhile, the situation has changed little.
Bangladesh is doing better than other countries in the region at achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000. The World Bank in Bangladesh states that the country “has made remarkable progress on several MDGs and is already on the verge of achieving the targets in gender parity. It also has a good chance of reaching other targets in areas such as under-five mortality and consumption poverty.” Many Bangladeshis are openly astonished when they hear of such ‘successes’, however, being aware of the high levels of insecurity experienced by people of all classes in the country. At the end of the day, economic growth has not resulted in any increase in physical security for Bangladeshis; indeed, it may have promoted increasing insecurity through a rise in criminality and impunity.
In recent times, Bangladesh has come to international attention through the lens of Islamic extremist violence and terrorism. However, the threat posed by systemic corruption of the political, business and justice structures poses a greater and more immediate threat to the security of Bangladeshis, and to the integrity of democracy in the country. Bangladesh is a very politically aware country, but one where survival requires political patronage at all levels. The politics that is practiced is complex, multi-layered and opaque, and political relationships frequently include ‘protection’ that reaches into both the criminal sector and the justice system itself.
Mastaans and godfathers
Corruption is not so much endemic as systemic in Bangladesh, and the country has now topped the Transparency International corruption index for several years running. Corruption is also directly linked to criminality, violence and impunity. The social system in Bangladesh remains somewhat feudal, and both social and business relations are based on patronage – relationships that have assisted organised crime to capture many aspects of the state and governance, law enforcement and the judicial system. It also pervades business practice. Mastaans, organised criminals, run wide-ranging ‘protection rackets’ through a complex system of payment and collection. Even street beggars pay for protection.
Mastaans have developed relationships and linkages with politicians, who in turn benefit financially. Some of these politicians, known as ‘godfathers’, hold high-ranking positions, and extend political and judicial protection to the mastaans. Some mastaans have become legitimate businessmen, while others have themselves entered politics – each maintaining his own coterie of goondas. As such, the lines between politics, business and organised crime have become increasingly blurred in Bangladesh. Honest businessmen and politicians are often isolated and powerless, as the prevailing atmosphere makes it difficult to remain unsullied by corruption and patronage.
The success of the political-criminal nexus in Bangladesh is underpinned by impunity. The godfather-mastaan system enforces endemic corruption, and protects those engaged in its organisation. Furthermore, protected mastaans enjoy impunity from both police and the justice system – though in recent years this safety has been threatened by other extrajudicial means.
In October 2002, police claimed that 10 people were being killed every day by crime syndicates with links to politicians. The government subsequently launched Operation Clean Heart, an army programme that arrested over 11,000 people, of which only 2400 were listed as alleged criminals. There were 44 deaths reported during the operation, which ended in January 2003. The government immediately passed an ordInance granting indemnity to all the security personnel who had been involved in the excesses. Although there was a strong outcry from human rights organisations and Western governments at this use of the army and lack of due process, Operation Clean Heart was an immediate popular success. Dhaka thereafter instituted the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force almost entirely composed of military personnel but reporting to the Home Affairs Minister. The RAP operations were ‘legalised’ by investing it with the powers of civilian police.
Numerous criminals have been killed in ‘crossfire’ by the RAB, to the extent that ‘being taken to the crossfire’ is entering the language in much the same way as ‘being disappeared’ did in Latin America in an earlier era. The RAB still enjoys high popularity, as many Bangladeshis view it as their only hope against preying criminals. Many RAB officers have been on UN peacekeeping missions, and therefore fully understand human rights norms; in the war against the mastaans, however, they do not see these as applicable. Currently, the RAB seems to be efficient, disciplined and relatively incorrupt, but their actions offend every precept of due process and rule of law. Even within some parts of the army itself, questions are being asked as to who will ultimately be able to control this proud, elite, popular force.
Impunity and enforcement of the rule of law are key issues to many of the country’s governance, security and business ills. Unfortunately, many of those benefiting from the system are also those to whom one would look in the fight against impunity, criminality and corruption. A more successful process needs to be systematic, long-term, and one that harnesses the will of Bangladeshis.
Turn to conservatism
Unlike other parts of Southasia, Bangladesh was converted to Islam by the Sufis prior to its incorporation into the Mogul empire during the 17th century. The more spiritual, rather than clerical, approach of the Sufis resulted in a blended, syncretic Bengali culture. Though Islamic by religion, these cultural forms celebrate singing and dancing from the Sufi tradition, and also incorporate many aspects of Hinduism.
This traditional Sufi-based faith has been increasingly challenged, however, by both Deobandism from Pakistan and India, and some Wahabism from West Asia – both of which are stricter and more clerically based. The West Asian influence has been strengthened by investment of oil money in Bangladesh since the 1970s, as well as by Bangladeshis returning from work in the Gulf. Increasing worldwide Islamic consciousness and geopolitical events have also played a part in introducing more clerically based trends. Thousands of Bangladeshis are believed to have fought against the USSR in Afghanistan, subsequently returning home after the Soviets left.
The increasing conservatism of Islam in Bangladesh is noticeable in the transformation in dress of women and men, as well as in the conspicuous pious acts in which political leaders of all parties increasingly engage. The AL is traditionally seen as the party of secularism, while the BNP, which removed secularism from the Constitution, is perceived as more favourable to Islam. This is particularly so in the current context, as the present BNP-led government is an alliance that includes two Islamic parties, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Islamic Oike Jote.
JI’s percentage of the popular vote has remained below 10 percent in successive elections. After allying with the BNP in 2001, JI secured 18 out of 300 seats in Parliament, and now holds two cabinet ministries. This is the first time that the party has been in government, and the advantage it has been able to garner from this exposure will only be clear after the 2007 election results are known. The acrimony between the two major parties has left the population disillusioned with almost all their political leaders. As such, there were fears that JI’s image as a party with a clear agenda and relatively free of financial irregularity would attract disillusioned voters. However, it seems that the activities of violent Islamist groups may have boomeranged against the party, and a JI election upset now appears unlikely.
International headlines, meanwhile, have focused on the threat of violent extremism, particularly in the wake of the bombings between August and December 2005 associated with the militant Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Despite widespread media reports, however, the government continued to deny JMB’s existence for months, until strong international pressure forced Dhaka to ban the group in February 2005, one day before a high-level international donor meeting was slated to take place. After the JMB was suspected in the 459 near-simultaneous countrywide explosions in August that year, it was again international pressure that resulted in the incident being taken seriously.
During subsequent attacks that targeted members of the judiciary, investigations and arrests did indeed proceed. This resulted in several long jail sentences being handed down in February, and two leaders being sentenced to death in May. However, recent reports state that other trials have been frustrated by the authorities failing to produce the accused in court. Furthermore, during the judicial process links have been discovered between the accused and Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as with JI itself. In addition, there have been reports of strong links with leading politicians in both the major parties. Some Bangladeshis believe that the JMB leadership has had ‘godfather’ protection, particularly in its earlier activities in northern Bangladesh.
In 2004, the leader of the terror outfit JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh) known as ‘Bangla Bhai’, whose real name is Siddiqul Islam, held a press conference in a local government office in Rajshahi. Locals also observed cooperation between the police and the JMB, who were hunting down supposed communists and leftists. However, the actions by the security forces against the JMB have convinced most Bangladeshis that the Mujahideen has, for the moment, been broken – although few believe that they are finished.
Prior to August 2005, there was much confusion about the extent of support that groups such as the JMB might have. The public reaction to the exhibitions of violence that month, however, indicated a clear rejection. Indeed, JI’s profile has suffered badly as a result of the JMB’s activities. This bodes well for countering further threats of Islamic violence in Bangladesh. However, the underlying spectre of Islamic conservatism ‘laying the foundation’ for an Islamic state appears to be one that Bangladeshi political parties are unwilling to publicly take on board, lest they offend Islamic sensibilities among the electorate. At the same time, the international community is simply unable to do so, constrained as they are by a mixture of excessive liberalism on the one hand, and judicious caution that they may inflame sensitive anti-imperialist and/or Muslim sentiments among Bangladeshis on the other.
New popular will
It can now be seen that Bangladesh’s formal democracy has been gradually undermined by the impunity and failure of the rule of law inherent to both the godfather-mastaan system and the politics of patronage. Yet over three previous elections, the first two were thought to be free and fair, while a third reflected the will of the people despite overt violence in some areas; a fifth poll was dubious, but was rejected by the people, and a new government was installed within five months. Critical to this has been the non-party caretaker government system, which has been held up as a model for other countries in democratic transition. Recent irregularities surrounding this system, however, have led to a wide coalition of opposition parties drawing up an Electoral Reform Agenda (See accompanying story, “A crippled caretaker”).
The AL has threatened to boycott the election if the reforms are not adopted. The government agreed in principle to a discussion, and for a while it looked as if the absence of dialogue in Bangladeshi politics might suddenly be broken. But that hope was short-lived. The AL wanted direct talks with the BNP, and stated they would not hold discussions with the government’s alliance partners, the JI and Oike Jote. The BNP subsequently put forward a dialogue team that included members from all alliance parties. As such, there has still been no dialogue, leading commentators and activists to believe that the government and opposition are on a collision course that can only end in violence.
Meanwhile, most of the country’s voters appear to be disillusioned with both of the major parties, and harbour an active distrust of all politicians. The parties themselves have ignored the people’s needs between elections, other than to use the public against each other. In the villages, there is an increasing polarisation between those who seek solace and social welfare from the new mosques, and those who cling to the traditional Sufism and embrace NGO programmes.
But as the political parties swing into election mode over the spring and summer of 2006, the people have begun to take things into their own hands. Popular local demonstrations, neither orchestrated by nor linked to any political party, have occurred spontaneously around a variety of non-political issues. In the volatile political atmosphere of present-day Bangladesh, these could continue to grow.
Though there had previously been some popular protest around energy and environmental issues – particularly in those areas that were devastated by gas blowouts and fires in the country’s northeast – these had always been utilised by opposition parties for their own purposes against the government. For many, no electricity means no water; the high level of electricity outages has subsequently caused huge frustration, resulting in these large and public protests in Kansat and Demra villages during the first four months of this year. The national press estimated that over 1000 people were injured at Kansat, forcing the government to issue a public apology. Regardless, there is little that Dhaka can do to improve the electricity situation in the short term.
In late May 2006, the protest focus turned from electricity to industry, when workers across the garment sector violently rioted in what began as a dispute over dismissals in a single factory and quickly spread to engulf whole industrial areas (See Himal June 2006, “Inflation and the garments worker”). This is another example of the extreme volatility of contemporary conditions in Bangladesh. With no political party having the credibility to give leadership or direction to such protests, street turbulence lacking in any national leadership is likely to increase.
Little will change
Getting through the next election is a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilising Bangladesh. Despite the widespread disillusionment with the political parties, without doubt it is important that January’s elections take place and, as far as possible, are conducted freely and fairly. The international agencies in Dhaka are already cooperating with Bangladeshi organisations to ensure that there is a good distribution of trained monitors, both local and international, throughout the country. If the elections cannot take place and there is no mandate for governance, the possibilities are all grim.
Bangladesh has a history of military government. Currently, the armed forces do not seem to have political ambition – they enjoy some political influence without any responsibility, and they earn well from UN missions and business deals. However, if the civilian political parties are unable to establish a credible government, their intervention may be welcomed as a stabilising factor both within and outside Bangladesh. Previous military governments originated under a similar guise of ‘saving the country’.
As such, the 2007 elections are crucial for Bangladesh, despite the fact that their actual outcome will change little. The country’s problems are systemic, and have come about through the lowering of people’s expectations of government and of political parties. The latter, meanwhile, have managed to hollow out the state through corruption and nepotism. Both the AL and BNP are complicit in this negative process, and both have allowed the ‘godfather system’ to become so entrenched that it is questionable whether they can ever totally extricate themselves from it.
While these problems need to be articulated in the public domain, that has proven a dangerous task, as many Bangladeshi journalists have discovered for trying. But it is not until the corruption of Bangladeshi politics is addressed publicly that a corrective process will be able to begin. Only at that point will Bangladeshis be able to start developing systematic responses to the governance challenges the country faces. And only then might the people of Bangladesh be able to look to a more secure future.