A three-way balance of power

Zafar Sobhan

Having intervened in politics on numerous occasions over the past 40 years, and more recently having acted as referee between the two main parties, the army continues to play a key role in the balance of power, writes Zafar Sobhan

Bangladesh’s 40 years of independence, being celebrated this year, can perhaps best be understood if we consider them as falling into five distinct eras or republics. The principal common factors underlying these different phases have been the fierce competition between the two main political parties and the occasionally forceful role of the armed forces.

The first era, under the rule of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party the Awami League (AL), came to a sudden end on 15 August 1975 in a hail of bullets that killed him and most of his family during a military uprising led by junior and mid-level army officers. After a nerve-wracking drama of coup and counter coup, the second republic was born in November that year, when independence hero and military strongman, General Ziaur Rahman (known as Zia), was left standing at the end of a bloody and intrigue-ridden three months. Zia, who returned the country to civilian government in 1978 and founded the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), remained in office until May 1981 when he, in turn, was felled by an assassin’s bullet. This set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the third republic headed by the army chief, General Hussein Mohammad Ershad, who seized power in March 1982.

Ershad was himself forced from office in December 1990 following a combined movement by the opposition parties – the AL and the BNP – that witnessed the last recorded act of cooperation between these two bitter rivals. Elections in 1991 brought the BNP back to power after an absence of 10 years, and marked the beginning of the fourth republic – Bangladesh’s first period of true competitive, multi-party democracy. In 1996, Begum Khaleda Zia, General Zia’s widow who, since his death, has led the BNP, was succeeded as prime minister by Sheikh Hasina, AL leader and daughter of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujib. Power again switched hands between the two parties in 2001 when Zia was returned to office – with a landslide victory – in coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami party.

This phase of democratic government came to an end on 11 January, 2007 when, following months of street battles and bloodshed between the AL and BNP in the run-up to new elections, a military-backed caretaker government of technocrats, led by ex-central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, took the reins of power and postponed the elections. After a two-year interregnum, the fifth republic dawned and democracy was returned with fresh elections on 28 December 2008, which were won emphatically by the AL, making Sheikh Hasina Prime Minister for the second time.

As we have seen, the three primary forces in the Bangladeshi body politic are the AL, the BNP and the army. The first-past-the post parliamentary system can give either of the parties a lop-sided majority but they remain evenly matched in their core support – elections are increasingly decided by the growing mass of swing voters. Historically, the army had always been considered closer to the BNP in terms of ideology and temperament – the BNP was a party born in the military cantonment – whereas the AL, under Sheikh Hasina, mindful of her father’s fate, has always maintained a distrust of the army.

However, the tenure of the caretaker government of 2007-08 has altered the calculus. It was partly as a result of international pressure, but mainly in response to the BNP’s five years of shambolic rule and blatant machinations to rig the elections, that the army decided to move in 2007, surprising many who had believed that it supported the BNP.

There is little to suggest that the army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed, stepped forward in January 2007 with the ambition to take over the country, as other army chiefs had done before him. Instead, he may have hoped that the AL and BNP could be replaced by new – and presumably more democratic – parties that could lead the way to a more functional democracy. However, after Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus ended a brief foray into politics in May 2007, the AL and BNP remained stubbornly intact, and no new political formations emerged. It was clear that politics as usual was set to return with elections at the end of 2008.

This left the army, which had enthusiastically persecuted scores of politicians in its zeal for reform, with the problem of how to ensure its own security when power was returned to civilian hands. In the end, the generals came to an understanding with the AL, largely because the principal army measures during the caretaker government had been aimed at the BNP, most notably against Khaleda’s powerful elder son who had been widely seen as the power behind the BNP throne.

But the new amity between AL and army was short-lived, extinguished by a brutal massacre of commanding officers by mutinying border guards in a tense 36-hour stand-off in February 2009, that left at least 57 officers dead. Although the newly re-elected prime minister was widely hailed for her calm handling of the crisis, her refusal to storm the compound where the mutineers were holding their hostages infuriated those who felt their comrades’ lives could have been saved.

In Bangladesh, politics is never just about the votes; it’s also about muscle. The BNP has bounced back from its 2008 general election trouncing and done well in local and municipal polls, indicating that the public has both noted the AL government’s failure to deliver during its first two years in office, as well as forgiven the BNP for the excesses of its 2001-06 rule. The key lesson that the BNP may well have learned from 2006 is that its best guarantee of a fair election might be to agitate to have the army oversee the process, as happened in 2008 (widely considered the fairest ballot in Bangladesh’s history). This, however, would require reconciliation with the army or at least a faction of it – with army discontent with the government rising, there is little doubt that the BNP will find takers within the cantonment willing to forge an understanding. So, with elections scheduled for 2013, it seems that the army once again holds the balance of power.

The showdown in the run-up to the next election is likely to be, as it was in 2006, over the composition of the neutral caretaker government constitutionally mandated to administer elections. If the army is called in by one side or the other to adjudicate the matter, or to provide behind-the-scenes muscle, there is always the risk that elements within the army, believing that they did not go far enough during the last caretaker regime, will be emboldened to try to dispense with civilian partners altogether.

In the final analysis, Bangladeshi politics remains delicately poised between the three primary players and there is still an uneasy equilibrium. Whenever the two main parties fail to uphold the norms and tenets of democracy, either in government or in opposition, the army is likely to maintain the balance of power and so could remain a factor in Bangladeshi politics for as long as a functional democracy remains elusive.

About the author:

Zafar Sobhan is a Dhaka-based columnist and editor


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International