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#4313, 17 February 2014

Dhaka Discourse

Bangladesh: Domestic Politics and External Actors
Delwar Hossain
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University

A new government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has started functioning in Bangladesh following the general elections held on 5 January 2014. The new cabinet has received positive responses from different groups in Bangladesh for inducting veteran politicians. As many as 30 members of the outgoing cabinet were dropped, allegedly for their linkages with corruption or poor performance. The first session of the 10th National Parliament was called on 29 January 2014 in a new political environment. The parliamentary democracy of Bangladesh has entered its third phase. In the first phase, immediately after the Liberation War in 1971 Bangladesh adopted the Westminster system of government. The first Constitution, known as the 1972 Constitution, is still lauded by the centre, centre left, centre right and left elements of Bangladeshi politics. In 1975, the country was brought under the the presidential form of government which lasted until the fall of the Ershad regime on 6 December 1990.

The twelfth Amendment to the Constitution on 6 August 1991 re-introduced the parliamentary form of government in Bangladesh. The introduction of the Caretaker Government system through the 13th Amendment in 1996 added a new dimension to parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. After more than two decades, the parliamentary system witnessed a new phase marked by the absence of the Caretaker Government system, and more importantly, absence of a major political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in the Parliament. BNP ruled the country for more than 14 years. Now the main opposition party in the 10th Parliament is the Ershad-led Jatiya Party. Understandably, BNP with its allies will remain engaged in street politics while in the parliament the government will face its former ally as the main opposition party.

This is a script not written by any pundit or by any political astronomer - rather it is the inevitable outcome of the high stakes zero-sum-game in in Bangladeshi politics. The main players are obviously the two main alliances – the BNP led 18-party (now 19- party) alliance and the Awami League-led grand alliance. The people continue to be disillusioned and disappointed. The political process moved in its own course, paving the way for formal democracy to continue as the last resort for a stable and peaceful society. The constitution has been upheld. Bangladesh with its high performing economy, growing middle class and promising social development cannot remain hostage to confrontational and violent politics. It is an abiding reality that gives a strong message to political actors in the country and their friends and well-wishers at home and abroad.

A major feature of post-poll Bangladeshi politics has been the role of external powers. Unquestionably, these external powers are friends and development partners of Bangladesh. It is a common trend today that development partners, known as the diplomatic community, tend to get involved in domestic politics in the developing world. In South Asia, Nepal, Maldives, and Pakistan have faced this in different degrees. Bangladesh is no exception. It is generally perceived that parties in opposition often invite active involvement of the diplomatic community in domestic politics, making it part of their anti-government movement. While the diplomatic community could not resolve any single violent political dispute between the two major political parties in Bangladesh, there is no sign of their diminishing role. In 2013, it reached in its peak when the UN-supported Taranco mission made several attempts to strike a deal between the warring political parties.

This time, surprisingly, almost all major development partners attempted to get involved in the unfolding political situation in Bangladesh. The US, EU, India, the UN, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Australia all played a role. Of course, some were more visible than others. What is interesting is their common spirit – one of idealism for holding credible and inclusive elections. No doubt, every state has their national interest to serve in the foreign policy arena. Diplomats from all these countries and groups are to defend their national interests, and they have been doing so. Yet, it appears that many of these external players were guided by ideals rather than the reality in Bangladesh. The diplomatic community was solely concerned with the electoral process without giving much consideration to the evolving political dynamics in Bangladesh.

However, in the post poll context, the same actors have been demonstrating a better understanding of domestic politics in Bangladesh. Issues of war crimes trials, rise of political violence, militancy, threat of fundamentalist politics, and vulnerability of minority communities to vested quarters matter for democracy and governance in Bangladesh. They matter seriously against the backdrop of massive destruction and heinous attacks on the lives and properties of common people as seen before and after the polls. The post-poll European Parliament resolution (16 January 2014), the Hearing on Bangladesh by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (11 February 2014), and statements of several development partners of Bangladesh show a pragmatic view of the political situation in Bangladesh. Any misperception or subjective view of Bangladeshi politics would not be of any help to the 160 million people of Bangladesh nor democracy in the country.

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