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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Bangladesh Paradox

File photo: Voters long queue during parliamentary election in a small town in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is in crisis mode again. Every five years, as predictable as its annual monsoon, but not nearly as monotonous, comes the quinqennial political crisis. These occur because the Constitution mandates a general election every five years, and elections bring on crisis because incumbent parties spare no effort, no matter how legally or morally questionable, to win re-election. The opposition’s scruples are no less reprehensible, however lacking they are in constitutional mechanisms to manipulate to their advantage. Violence, and sometimes extreme violence, is at the top of the election tool box of both parties.

And yet, no incumbent party has ever been re-elected in the era of electoral politics, because in every election, the record of the party in power is such that the voters are desperate to give the opposition a chance to show it can do better. The voters are always disappointed. In Bangladesh politics, as in all politics in all countries, hope repeatedly triumphs over experience. This year is the same: the polls show that a free and fair election would bring the opposition to power; and the government has done all in its power, and perhaps if the Constitution and Supreme Court are read literally, a lot that is not legally in its power, to remain in office.

Currently, the political impasse over election procedures has led the opposition to threaten to boycott the election and to launch a violent blockade of Dhaka. The opposition assumes that an election without the participation of the other half of the polity would be regarded by, at least, half the voters and by the outside world, as illegitimate. The loss of life is mounting, not just among the party apparatchiks, but among innocent bystanders, yet the government shows no signs of agreeing.

Business leaders and most of civil society, as well as the international community, are crying for an agreement between the two party leaders. Many in civil society want a ‘recess’ from politics, the elements of which range from: 1) postponing the election for a few months until things are worked out; to 2) a ‘reset pause’ which is a euphemism for a military intervention and a technocratic government devoted to rebuilding institutions and reforming the parties.

It didn’t work before, so why would it work now? The answer to that lies, probably in a riddle called ‘The Bangladesh Paradox’. That paradox is that Bangladesh defies modernisation theory, which remains the intellectual foundation of much development activity. Simply put, this theory is that political development is linked to high sustained rates of economic growth, lowered rates of poverty, marked improvement in social indicators such as education, literacy, public health. In other words, a rising tide of income and social advancement raises all boats, and through growth and advancement of the middle class, democratic structures and institutions, and thus democracy itself, will follow inevitably.

There is no empirical evidence for this conclusion and, in fact, much evidence against it (China, Malaysia, among others). Bangladesh has achieved GDP growth of five-six per cent for almost 20 years; its social indicators are better than India (and grossly better than Pakistan) and probably only surpassed in South Asia by Sri Lanka. So, why has it marched backward on the authoritarian/democratic axis towards a more authoritarian state? The primary reason is surely that formal democracy, lacking the checks and balances of real democracy, has hollowed out its institutions by turning them into mechanisms for the ruling party (either one) to extract the growing economic rents to be had from an expanding economy.

The reaction of most outsiders to the present crisis is that things will work out as they always have. In past crises, the incumbent party always had to give up and the opposition took office, to restore balance if not functionality. But history does not always repeat itself. If the government actually goes forward with its planned one-party election, the ensuing violence could bring it down and/or make another election necessary, which the opposition would probably win. That is, sadly, the best-case scenario. The alternative is worse, a government which, because of the perverted institutions of the state, is in a position to eliminate the opposition as a force to be reckoned with, and move towards a one-party state. This election, Instead of deja vu all over again, could be the tipping point to something entirely new on the subcontinent.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 10, 2013

William B Milam served as US ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001. He is also Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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