Mukti

Hiatus reflections

Posted in democracy, elections, political economy, politics by jrahman on November 24, 2019

Blogging went on hiatus in March 2013.  Since then, there has been occasional pieces, notably around the election seasons of 2013 and 2018, and a few forays every now and then on matters serious and not so.  But none of that has been regular.  What have I learnt in this extended time off?  What am I most surprised by?  What is something truly unpredictable from the 2013 vantage point?

The answer is, of course, a lot.  But in the context of Bangladesh, it should be no surprise to anyone that the longevity of the current regime would be the single most surprising development to the 2013-me.

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The day after tomorrow

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on January 6, 2019

The infamous 30 December not-quite-an-election is now truly behind us, and Bangladesh today is exactly where it was five years ago.  And there is no sign of anything changing anytime soon.  The regime of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed holds a tight grip on power, and it’s hard to see anything loosening that grip today.  But tomorrow — figuratively, not literally — will certainly be different.  The super-densely populated humid swamp that is Bangladesh is always at the edge of chaos.  Credit where its due — Mrs Wajed has been extremely deft at keeping her regime, and the rest of us, from falling over the cliff.  But nothing lasts forever.  Sooner or later, there will be a tomorrow when the regime finds itself out of credit to pay off the crisis.

What will happen the day after?

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A people’s republic

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 28, 2018

A country isn’t changed by politicians, but its people…..  You are Bangladesh…..  We have no more fear.  We have put Bangladesh in our heart such that there is no place for fear in it…..  On the 30th….  you will take ownership of this country…..  We want to leave this country to our children.

A few weeks ago, I asked why the promises of a few old men should be taken seriously.  Harassed, threatened, beaten, bloodied, shot, arrested, family members arrested — yet, Jatiya Oikya Front is still spreading a message of hope.  Their grit alone deserves to be taken seriously.  And Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir’s inspiring words are backed up by specific commitments that will return the republic to its people.

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Showing up

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 27, 2018

Is there a proper Bangla term for Monday morning quarterback.  There sure ought to be.  After all, we all know many of them in real life — that chacha who confidently opines about the mistakes of everyone on everything from cricket to quantum physics, or that khala who has the told-you-so ready for every occasion.  In the first couple of weeks of 2014, Deshi cyberspace was full of such so-called expert opinions on how BNP should have participated in, and won, that winter’s election.  As Awami League blatantly rigs next week’s election, there will probably be a chorus explaining how BNP got it wrong by participating when clearly a boycott was the better option.

Now, I don’t presume to lecture veteran politicians on how to do politics any more than I can tell a doctor how to diagnose illness or prescribe medicine.  There can, of course, be analysis of what happened, might have happened, should have happened, and what will probably happen.  To the extent that some of this is, well, Monday morning (or five seasons later) quarterbacking — I beg your indulgence.

This might come as a surprise to many that up until the 1980s, election boycott was relatively rare in Bangladesh.

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The end of the beginning

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 26, 2018

Election is not just the act of voting.  Before a voter gets to the centre, there has to be candidates representing all sides, and the candidates need to be able to campaign freely.  By all accounts, the electoral process so far has been far from free and fair.  And after the votes are cast, there is the process of counting — who knows what kind of shenanigan awaits us there.  So, even if the voters get inspired enough to vote, is there real any cause for optimism?

Let’s think this through in a systematic way.

How could things end?  Either Awami League brutally and blatantly rigs the election on 30 Dec (or early hours of the 31st if the rigging is to be done during the counting process), or it fails to do so.  These are the two possibilities, right?  What’s a reasonable probability of AL failing to carry out its designs?  Obviously there is no formal mechanism to put a number on it. Let’s say there is a 20% chance that AL won’t be able to steal the election.

Does that mean there is a 20% chance of Jatiya Oikya Front winning?  No.  It’s more complicated than that.  There are two ways AL could fail to rig the election.  One is, of course, the silent voter revolution — the turnout is so high, and voter rejection of Mrs Hasina Wajed is so overwhelming, that the boat just simply sinks.  But that’s not the only way AL could fail to rig — violence could get out of hand on the election day, or blatant miscounting could trigger a popular uprising that ends in a military coup, or a combination of these, and other violent stuff, could eventuate.  Let’s say there is an equal probability of the peaceful and violent failure-to-rig scenarios.

That would leave us with a mere 10% chance of a peaceful change of government.  Not very uplifting, right?

Wrong.

Think about the 80% probability that on 30-31 Dec, Awami League will ‘win’ a majority, and sometime in the following week Mrs Wajed will be sworn in for a third consecutive term.  Will 2019 and beyond be like the past decade?

No.  No matter what happens, Bangladesh will enter a new phase next week.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous observation after the Battle of El Alamein — Now this will not be the end. It will not even be the beginning of the end. But it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning.

 

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Cometh the hour…

Posted in elections, music, politics, rock by jrahman on December 25, 2018

One common concern trolling among the Awami League supporters is regarding the leadership of the Jatiya Oikya Front — who is your leader, if you win, who will be your prime minister, who will be the real decision maker etc.  The idea of collective leadership, cabinet governance, the party room deciding who will be its parliamentary leader — these notions are simply alien to Bangladeshi political culture.  Meanwhile, in many seats, it’s hard if not impossible for many JOF candidates to present themselves before the voters — some are in jail, others are forced out of their areas by AL thugs, and violent interruption of electioneering is commonplace.

Does it matter?  Perhaps the public doesn’t mind that JOF is a collective effort.  Perhaps it’s all about the election symbol.  Perhaps the public sentiment is: We don’t need another hero / We don’t need to know the way home / All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.

If people come out to vote, is state machinery strong enough to suppress the public will?  But will people come out to vote?

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What to expect if you are expecting?

Posted in economics, elections, institutions, politics by jrahman on December 23, 2018

In just a few days, Bangladeshis might have a chance to vote.  I have no idea whether the election will be free and fair.  Nor can I venture a guess about the winner.  For all we know, the government will follow the path of Pakistan over India — that is, it will rig the election following ZA Bhutto’s 1977 example, and not accept defeat in a free and fair election like Indira Gandhi did the same summer.  However, one can always hope, and expect.  If you were to expect a Jatiya Oikya Front victory on 30 December, what should you expect for the economy for the next five years?

As with anything to do with economy, the answer is mixed.

On the one hand, even if Mrs Hasina Wajed allows a free and fair election, accepts defeat, and peacefully hands over power, there is a significant risk that she will still have left the new government with a Pakistan-like situation.

Pakistan too had an election earlier this year.  The previous government claimed, with some justification, to have tackled the country’s electricity and other infrastructure problems.  Pakistan economy seemed to have turned a corner.  However, the government’s books were a mess, and there was a risk that the country couldn’t meet its external liabilities.  The incoming government had won the election promising good governance on a whole raft of fronts.  But the new prime minister Imran Khan and his finance minister have spent most of their time travelling the Washington DC, Beijing and Riyadh with a begging bowl.  And all the grand promises seem to be melting into thin air.  If you are expecting a triumph of democracy on 30 December, you would do well prepare for a Pakistan-style crisis in 2019.

On the other hand, if they can avoid a crisis that would be Mrs Wajed’s parting gift, there is much to look forward to a Oikya Front government for.  And a crisis is not a fait accompli.  A train wreck can be avoided if you see the locomotive rushing towards you.  The thing about expectations is, if you know what to expect, you could adjust your actions to avoid the worst possible outcome, and temper your expectations to face the situation in a stoic manner.  I suspect the would be econocrats of the Oikya Front are well aware of the mess they might inherit.  They will need to take a few steps to diffuse any looming disaster before launching their longer term tasks.  And if they can get to it, judging by its manifesto, and BNP’s Vision 2030, a new government will attempt an ambitious but realistic programme.

Let’s unpack these step by step.

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A few old men

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, elections, history, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 4, 2018

A corrupt, selfish elite rules over you, an elite in cahoots with foreigners, to whom the nation’s assets and future is being sold; and the lying media and rootless intellectuals stop you from seeing the truth; and yet, you sense the truth, that’s why you flock to the leader; even as the enemies of the people demonise him for not echoing their sophistry, you feel he tells it as it is — that he will kick the elite out, drain the swamp, lock the corrupt up, kill the criminals, and fix what ails the country; and make no mistake, it’s not hard to fix things, it’s just the knavery and perfidy of corrupt elite that need to be rooted out, and the leader will do just that; and he has proved it, hasn’t he, in his remarkable career as (business tycoon or mayor or army officer or whatever); he will make the country great, because he is truly of the country, like you are, and unlike those footloose elite who will flee the land with their ill gotten wealth if things get tough.

In recent years, variations of the above have reverberated from Washington DC to New Delhi, Warsaw to Brasilia, and Istanbul to Manila.  And politics around the world has been shaken.  There appears to be one exception — there doesn’t appear to be a Bangladeshi strongman on the scene.

There might have been.  After all, charges of corruption and ‘selling the country to foreigners’ can be laid quite easily against the current regime in Dhaka.  And historically, Bangladeshis have proved as susceptible to the cult of the leader as any other people.  So there might well have been a would be strongman leading the opposition.

Curiously, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, strongman in Bangladeshi politics is a dog that didn’t bark.

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Politicsback

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on November 25, 2018

These old men are bringing politics back, yeah / Them other guys don’t know how to act, yeah…. — okay, that’s enough frivolities, this is a serious political post.  Jatiya Oikya Front is taking on the regime of Hasina Wajed through the ballot box, thereby bringing politics back, politics that was sent packing by the prime minister of East Peccavistan five years ago.  What exactly is going on?  How did we get here?  That’s hard enough to answer, never mind any prediction of what will happen next!

What do I mean politics was sent packing?  Four years ago, I argued that our institutional settings — unitary republic with a unicameral legislature, constitutional bar against floor crossing, and the first past the post voting system — plus the historical baggage carried by the two party chiefs led to the autocracy of Mrs Wajed.  Her rival, Mrs Zia, was soundly beaten.  And with that, politics as we knew it ended.

The institutions we created/inherited, with the historical factors, led to the politics of the past decades. After 1991, BNP realised that it had power over so many things, while AL realised that it had power over absolutely nothing.  AL immediately set on winning power. It went with what it knew well —andolon. BNP panicked and rigged a by-election in Magura, giving AL a casus beli. After 1996, BNP figured that andolon would not do, so they introduced the alliance concept. After 2001, AL did andolon, but also formed a bigger alliance and introduced behind-the-scene moves with the establishment. Meanwhile, each successive government took centralisation to a new level.

And all this, because losing is not an option in a winner take all world.

At least in that world, the existence of two parties created some form of balance of force.  That balance is now gone.  BNP is not able to dislodge the government.  Calling for a free and fair election is a pointless exercise because the government isn’t interested in offering one, and the establishment isn’t convinced switching the masters will do anyone any good.  As a result, politics as we have come to know is finished.

A few hours after I posted that, another round of andolon ensued.  I don’t know whether this was premeditated or spontaneous, but the opposition BNP’s apparent number two called for the street protest to continue until the government fell.  I don’t know whether the violence that ensued were acts of agent provocateurs, but force did not bring politics back.

So, how did politics come back now?

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Putting a ring on it

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on November 14, 2018

The Fonz, was a cool guy.  No, the leather jacketed Fonzie was the cool guy in the small all American town of Happy Days — a 1970s American sitcom set in the 1950s reruns of which aired frequently in the 1990s.  The Fonz was so cool that no one ever dared cross him, except no one ever saw Fonzie actually throw a punch.  Fonzie was cool because everyone agreed that he was cool.  He had the credibility that he was cool, even though no one quite knew how he earned that credibility.

Credibility is a subject of great interest to policy-oriented social studies types.  For example, consider the case of terrorists — of the mid-20th century, non-suicide bombing, pre-jihadi variety — taking over a skyscraper or a battleship, and declaring that they would kill a hostage every hour unless their demands of a million dollar in cash and safe passage to Brazil are met.  Well, if the authorities consist of cool guys like the arse-kicking president who would never give in to the terrorists, and the terrorists knew this well, then perhaps terrorists would never attempt their nefarious act.

How does one establish credibility?  Finn Kydland and Ed Prescott studied this in the 1970s, and won the Bank of Sweden Prize in 2004.  One implication of their theory, and theories that followed, is that credibility is dependent on actions.  If you make a promise, and incur some costs in the process of making or keeping the promise, then you’re more likely to be taken seriously.  This is where the idea of putting a ring on it comes from.  A diamond ring is costly, and serves no practical purpose other than to signal to the potential bride that the guy is serious.

I have been thinking about credibility a lot in the context of Bangladesh’s new opposition alliance and the upcoming election.  Specifically, Shafquat Rabbee’s recent op ed got me thinking.

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