Something curious has been happening in Bangladesh in the past 24 hours. After the jumma prayers yesterday, groups belonging to a dozen or so small Islamist parties took out processions against ‘atheists’ and ‘apostates’ of Shahbagh. Apparently these defenders of Islam were joined by Jamaat as well. There were scuffles with police. Shaheed Minar was attacked in Sylhet, and the national flag was burnt. And then there were some counterattacks against Jamaat-owned businesses. By nightfall, things were under control.
That’s what I get from the mainstream media (or the parts I can access – Prothom Alo and Daily Star aren’t safe for my iPad), and that’s not the curious thing. If that’s all there was to it, it would be hardly different from the occasional rampage some of the more ‘pious’ and excitable fellows get up to every time any government wants to give women equal rights of inheritance.
The curious thing is what I see in facebook and blogs. Judging by their account, Bangladesh stood on the brink of civil war. Religious fanatics had openly declared war on the country as it exists. On the other side, a large crowd had returned to Shahbagh in the evening, demanding that unless the government acts, there will be a revolution.
As explained earlier, on Shahbagh I’ve preferred to keep my mouth shut and eyes open. That remains my general approach. I have little factual understanding of what exactly is happening in Bangladesh. It may be that my facebook friends are an alarmist bunch (bloggers of all types in all countries are usually a hyperventilating lot — Andrew Sullivan felt suicidal when Obama did poorly in a debate!), and the mainstream media had it right: nothing of consequence happened yesterday. Or, it may be that there are complicated games at play — not being privy to any palace intrigues, I’ll leave conspiracy theorising to others.
If those scenarios happen, then what follows should be discarded. But as long as there is a non-trivial probability that the more alarmist version is right — that Bangladesh was/is close to civil war — then I believe it’s time for the grown ups to calm things down. (more…)
I was in Dhaka during the 2008 election. The day before the election, I told Asif Saleh that BNP was making a remarkable comeback and the election would be very tight. I was, of course, way off. Turns out so were pundits like Nayeemul Islam Khan, Asif Nazrul, Mahmudur Rahman and Nazim Kamran Chowdhury – who all noticed a massive momentum towards BNP. I was reminded of this episode last November, when Republican spinmeister Karl Rove refused to accept election results as they were coming in — apparently it wasn’t consistent with the momentum (Mittmentum) he had observed.
I (and more famous Deshi pundits) had an excuse. We didn’t have any proper opinion poll or survey data to guide our thinking. One pundit who did see such data — Zafar Sobhan – did predict an Awami landslide, and he was proved right. Of course, Rove and his ilk didn’t have such excuse. In America, people like Nate Silver looked at the polls and other relevant information and predicted the final election outcome quite accurately.
Compared with America (and other advanced democracies), opinion polls are still few and far between in Bangladesh. But compared with 2008, we now have regular polls by Daily Star and Prothom Alo. Good luck to anyone who believes they know the public pulse and don’t care for polls. Personally, I have no idea what the public believes, so I find these polls very interesting.
Here is the Daily Star survey, done by Centre for Strategic Research. Here are detailed results of Prothom Alo survey, conducted by ORG Quest (here is its news report, here is the methodology). As far as I can tell, these polls are done in the same way similar polls are done elsewhere. There are margins of error, and the polls are indicative of public opinion, not an exact predictor of anything.
With those caveats in mind, I think these polls should make BNP and Ershad supporters optimistic, while AL should be quite worried. The polls also hold interesting results for third force enthusiasts.
There is a tendency in Bangladesh to compare local politics with the latest development overseas. Thus the comparisons in 2008 between the Awami League and Obama election victories, or the calls for ‘OWS by the Buriganga’, or both AL-ers and BNP-wallahs claiming to be ‘Bangla’r Thaksin’. Such comparisons are likely to miss important nuances. I find it more useful to think about Bangladeshi conditions — something I am likely to know more about than, say, Thailand — and suggest factors that may matter elsewhere.
That’s how I started a post on the lessons our history could provide to emerging Arab democracies. That was a year ago. In the year since, democratisation process in Egypt — the most important country in the region — has been much more messy than anything we saw in Bangladesh. As Bangladesh walks into the next political crisis, it may be a good idea to revisit our own transition from military rule to electoral democracy, and ponder where we went wrong.
Folks at the International Crisis Group are disappointed with Hasina Wajed. This is from the very first para of their recent report on Bangladesh.
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.
I’ll write separately on the report. For now, let me focus on this feeling of disappointment, which is shared widely across the kind of people — the Daily Star reading, talk show/seminar/rountable attending crowd (you know who they/you/we are) — ICG would have interviewed. Let me pose the question to these folks: the disappointment is compared to what? What is the benchmark against which the government is being judged?
It’s an iconic 1980s song, played in the stereo systems of many a nerdy college kid over the past decades. Along with Hanif Kureishi’s work, apprently it’s among the best commentary on the Thatcher era England. It was also one of the themes of this classic Aaron Spelling drama. And now, it seems to be a great commentary on Bangladeshi political scene. Reading the Economist’s recent editorial and news story on Bangladesh, I kept recalling Morrissey’s matter-of-fact statement: when you say it’s gonna happen “now”, well, when exactly do you mean? see I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.