Looking at Cairo, thinking about Dhaka

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, history, politics by jrahman on December 12, 2012

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.

It might be instructive to begin with how smoothly things went in Bangladesh in the early 1990s.  As in Egypt of January-February 2011, the uprising against the Ershad regime of November-December 1990 seemed to gather pace out of nowhere.  In both cases, urban, educated youth led the uprising.  In both cases, the regime tried various carrots-and-sticks.  In both cases, at a crucial point, the army top brass decided to dump the president rather than turn the guns on civilians. 

That’s where the parallels end.  Unlike in Egypt, a civilian caretaker government assumed power in Bangladesh, and promptly organised a reasonably free and fair election within months.  The election result came as a surprise to everyone.  While most people expected the Awami League to win a comfortable majority (with some going so far as to predict a landslide), it was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that won a near majority (apparently, even the BNP leadership didn’t expect to win). 

This could have immediately set off a crisis.  The AL leadership’s initial reaction was not promising — the party chief claimed that the result reflected ‘stealth rigging’.  However, the claim only earned Hasina Wajed ridicule, and AL accepted the result grudgingly.   And grudgingly is the operative word — the newly elected opposition leader vowed that the government would not be allowed a moment of peace.

Nonetheless, transition to democracy continued quite smoothly.  When President HM Ershad resigned, Bangladesh had a presidential system of government where the president had unbridled executive power.  Awami League went into the 1991 election promising a return to the 1972 constitution which called for a parliamentary system (though the 1972 constitution was hardly pinnacle of democracy), while BNP’s official stance was to retain the status quo.  Both parties had agreed in November 1990 that in the post-Ershad world, the newly elected parliament would decide on the system of government.  Given the election result, BNP may well have had insisted on retaining the presidential system.  That surely would have created a major political crisis. 

In the event, no such crisis took place.  The interim president, Shahabuddin Ahmed, made it clear that without any constitutional amendment, there would be a presidential election in October 1991.  Neither parties were confident of winning that election  — while BNP received 50 more seats than AL in the 300-member parliament, both parties won around 30% of votes, leaving 40% of voters with Ershad, Jamaat-e-Islami and a dozen or so small parties of left and right.  In a de facto grand compromise, BNP accepted a return to 1972-style parliamentary form of government, while AL decided not to push its stance on socialism, secularism, and Bengali nationalism — other areas where the two parties differed, and where AL wanted to ‘return to 1972’.  The parliament unanimously passed constitutional amendments reflecting the compromise, and by the end of the year, Bangladesh’s democratic transition was effectively complete. 

Oh, throughout the process, army remained firmly loyal to its civilian masters, showing no interest in politics. 

Compared with the past couple of years in Egypt, Bangladesh had it extremely smooth.  Of course, the subsequent two decades have been anything but smooth for Bangladesh.  Who’s to blame for this?  Some will point the finger at BNP — they rigged the Magura bye-election in 1994, and then tried to hang on to power through a one-sided election in February 1996.  Others will blame the AL — they shamelessly allied with Jamaat and Ershad’s Jatiya Party, wrecked havoc with 173 days of hartal and forced BNP into a corner in 1995-96.  Some would say pox-on-both-houses and blame our corrupt, self-serving politicians.

However, I think our politicians are by and large not the main villain in our wrong turn.  In fact, most of the time over the past decades, the politicians have behaved exactly how rational agents would have been expected to behave in Prisoners’ Dilemma type situations.  And in some situations — the grand compromise of 1991, the losing sides accepting the results (no matter how grudgingly), working with the army so that the 2008 election could take place — politicians had actually behaved in a manner that produced a better outcome than might have been rationally expected.   

So I don’t blame the politicians.  Instead, I blame our opinionmakers, thought leaders, intellectuals.  I blame the legal-constitutional experts like Kamal Hossain, Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed or Rafiqul Huq.  I blame the political scientists like Rounaq Jahan, Dilara Chowdhury or Taluqder Maniruzzaman.  I blame veteran journalists like ABM Musa, Shafiq Rehman or SM Ali. 

Why do I blame these people?

Because throughout the 1980s, when there was a political and intellectual consensus against the Ershad regime, they failed to produce a vision for the post-Ershad democracy.  They failed to see that a ‘return to 1972’ would have created a winner-takes-all politics which would be disastrous in a patronage-based polity like ours.  They failed to tackle the changing social-cultural-economic dynamics set through by the turbulent 1970s.  And two decades on, they have not made any contribution to how Bangladeshi polity can be improved upon.  They still fail to understand that merely replacing Hasina-Khaleda with other faces, without changing the rules-of-the-game, will change nothing.  And they still fail to produce any ideas on how the rules can be changed. 

Lord Keynes ended the General Theory thus:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

Unfortunately, the academic scribblers our mad women in authority have been channeling are, frankly, quite poor.


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