The gamble in the Middle East and the gamble in Bangladesh
Readers will understand that I am exercising heroic self-restraint by limiting my remarks on the recently-completed Nuclear Framework Agreement to two paragraphs. It is, to quote London’s Financial Times (FT) a “singular” achievement, and in my view another possible inflection point in the modern history of the Middle East. As the FT speculates, if it succeeds, settling long standing political disputes by diplomacy instead of violence “might just get to be a habit” in a region in which the instinct to use violence seems on autopilot, not only by the countries therein, but by those from outside who have, or believe they have, political and security interests in the region. The mood is upbeat; the agreement was greeted rapturously by Iranian crowds, and President Rouhani of Iran voiced hopes that the agreement was but the first step of a rapprochement between Iran and hostile nations in the West; President Obama spoke of similar hopes and warned his domestic critics not to try to block a final agreement. I wonder if this accord has not become “too big to fail?”
It is, nonetheless, an enormous political gamble by all involved. An inability to close the deal would be a political disaster for those leaders heavily invested in it as well as the region and the globe. The pact is a win/win, or lose/lose wager. If the pact is successfully concluded, both Iran and the West win, and in fact almost everybody in the region and much of the world wins. If it is not successful, everybody loses (even Israel, despite its protests to the contrary).
This accord is much written about, but perhaps a similar gamble that is not so much in the news except in the country in which it seems to be occurring—Bangladesh—would be of greater interest to TFT readers. It certainly is important in South Asia and to the 160 million Bangladeshis. It is, in substance, more reminiscent of Blaise Pascal’s celebrated 17th century philosophical wager on the existence of God and an afterlife. Unlike Pascal’s unworldly wager, however, this wager, if it comes off, involves life and death in the uncertain here and now.
While our attention has been on the negotiations in Lausanne, all signs point to the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in Bangladesh making a risky but potentially life-saving, or death-dealing wager with the Bangladeshi people. With the strong encouragement of a group of civil society leaders, it seems likely that the BNP is about to put up two candidates for the upcoming Mayoral elections in Dhaka, which is divided into two municipalities, and one in the second largest city of Chittagong.
BNP could win the elections if it is left to campaign in a normal environment
This will be a welcome shift in strategy for the BNP. And it may have prompted what appears to be a relaxation of the government’s efforts to close political space for the party. The BNP carries great responsibility for what has gone wrong in the past 15 months. Despite favorable polling numbers, the party boycotted the January 2013 election because it could not force the AL government of 2009-13 to bring back the Caretaker Government provision. Since then there have been sporadic and bloody attempts to use its usual formula of street action to force the government to call another national election.
This strategy has given the AL one-party government the excuse to do what it probably intended to do anyway – to squeeze the political space of opposition down to a sliver of what it was. The AL’s responsibility for the crisis goes back, in a sense, to 2011 when it junked the Caretaker Provision, and its actions in the past 15 months have managed to get it some way toward effectively closing the BNP’s political space. Without the constraint of a real opposition, even a very small one, the AL has acted as one would have expected a Bangladeshi political party to act in the zero-sum mindset of Bangladeshi politics — it has moved expeditiously to eliminate the opposition party. It is not surprising that its efforts have reached further than just the political opposition as the lack of constraints on its behavior has led to efforts to get rid of any opposition, be it political or in the media or in society itself. The long list of human rights abuses committed by the government over these 15 months is well documented on websites devoted to human rights. Suffice to say that the ability of the BNP to act as a coherent opposition party is significantly reduced.
In spite of this, the BNP appears ready to go to the polls and try to operate as a normal party. The BNP leaders must know that, if the government turns loose all of its malevolent street elements against the BNP during the election, they risk losing most of, if not the all of, their front line party street workers to arbitrary arrest, extra judicial murder, and other strong arm methods. These are the workers who must be available at election time to turn out the vote bank, to try and stop skullduggery at the polls, and the other nitty gritty of election work. In other words, they risk destroying the party. This is a huge gamble given the realities, incentives, and perversions of Bangladeshi politics.
Given the unpopularity of the government, the BNP could win the elections if it is left to campaign in a normal election environment (normal in Bangladesh would be somewhat more risky than most countries), which would mean the party worker cadres at risk escaped serious damage. This would amount to a win/win outcome. Or they could lose the elections but still keep the remaining party cadres intact, a lose/win result. Lastly, they could lose the party workers and of course the elections, ie lose/lose. The first two of these would still be a win for the country as it would signal a return to more normal politics, and give hope for a two-party national election sooner rather than later. The third would be a disastrous loss for the party and the country as it would leave the AL as the only de facto major party, soon to be de jure, I suspect.
Why are the BNP leaning strongly this way? First, I guess is pressure from civil society, which is desperate for an opposition and totally unable to mount one apart from the existing parties. The so-called “third force” continues to be an impossible dream. Second, I suspect, the total bankruptcy of BNP strategy for the past 18 months must be clear to most of its leaders. On my last visit to Dhaka, most of those that I talked to claimed they had argued for participation in the January 2013 election. For some this may be 20-20 hindsight, but for many, I suspect they saw the futility of using 20th century street strategy in today’s Bangladesh. Third, I hope (and this may be really wishful thinking) that India has begun to understand that stability on its Eastern border, in Bangladesh, requires that both major parties have a shot at the economic rents of governance, and has begun to exercise its significant influence to stabilize Bangladesh politics.
The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia