While there are many political parties in Bangladesh, two dominant election alliances (EA) have emerged since the 1991 election, led by the Awami League (AL) and its arch rival the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The goal of this commentary is to explore if the EAs are a net plus for Bangladesh.
An EA should be differentiated from the formation of a coalition government when no single political party wins absolute majority in the general election. A coalition government is a governance coalition after the election and not an ex ante EA to compete in the election.
EAs can have major implications for election outcomes. Under an EA, effectively only one candidate is supported in a constituency by all the allied political parties. To the extent voter preference for a political party translates to votes in favor of its EA, an EA minimizes splitting of the votes for the allied parties. This enhances the chances of winning a given constituency by an EA candidate against the candidate of an opposing dominant political party or a competing EA. Thus, an EA system can make the electoral contests more competitive, make the parliament more robust, keep the governing party or EA relatively more accountable, and allow smaller parties to be represented in the parliament and in governance.
Importantly, however, the above EA benefits are expected in the presence of a single dominant political party or an EA already in place. In Canada, for example, during the 1990s, the Progressive Conservative Party literally collapsed and by default the left of centre Liberal Party became excessively dominant in national politics. The competitive fix came from the formal merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the ultra-right Reform Party. Capitalizing on voter disappointments with the Liberals, the newly formed Conservative Party came to power, and using their latest absolute majority, is pushing through policies that could reverse many progressive achievements of Canada. As such, talks are now back in political circles to unify the left leaning parties. To summarize, the Canadian experience shows the downsides of a single dominant party and the benefits of an EA (merging of parties in Canada) in such contexts.
In contrast, in countries like Italy, Israel and Greece, there are numerous political parties that routinely win some seats in the parliament, no single dominant party repeatedly wins an overwhelming number of seats, and as such post-election coalition governments are a norm rather than an exception. Coalition governments in Italy and Israel are often unstable though and results in premature elections. While these democracies are fiercely competitive, the lack of assured continuity of a government and political gridlocks can be debilitating as has recently been observed in Greece.
Let us now evaluate the EA system in the specific context of Bangladesh.
First, there is no single dominant party in Bangladesh and no lack of competing political ideologies. Further, in the pre-EA elections in 1991 and 1996, there was no lack of competition, and a single party (BNP, then AL) won governing majority in each case resulting in stable parliamentary governments. Thus, there is no inherent need for EAs to make the elections competitive or to ensure stability in governance.
Second, the smaller parties have benefited the most from the EAs. Their representation in the parliament and their say either in governance or in EA positions on various issues have increased substantially. The disproportionate influence of the leftist parties on the AL-led EA and that of the religious right on the BNP-led EA can hardly be disputed.
Third, voters cannot choose any more between the stand alone views of AL or BNP, without yielding unintended support to either the extreme left or the extreme right. This resembles the US situation where a vote against the Democrats is a vote for the Republicans thus lending unintended support for the agenda of the extreme right groups that the Republicans need to court. Importantly, however, the US system of two equally powerful chambers of the legislature and the Presidency, builds in the much needed check and balance that is missing in Bangladesh since the winner EA in the parliament is in sole control of all organs of the government.
Fourth, the AL-led or BNP-led EA can form an overwhelming absolute majority government without the support of the majority of the voters. Thus, with no broad based electoral mandate, the winning EA can still bring about major and sweeping changes including constitutional amendments, and importantly it can do so without such changes being part of its election manifesto. The most recent example is the abolition of the interim Care Taker Government system by the ruling AL-led EA. Regardless of whether such changes are beneficial, the important point is that the EAs in Bangladesh expose the country to the risk of dramatic change in course with little support assured from the population.
Fifth, the parties not included in a coalition government do not typically have a unified opposition, but with EAs, the parties in the losing EA are by construction unified in opposition to the ruling EA. In the presence of two dominant political parties in Bangladesh, the marginal benefit of a unified opposition in the parliament is rather negligible. However, the unified opposition from the losing EA has traditionally led to much stronger anti-regime movements/agitations resulting in more frequent and widespread hartals, clashes, political violence, and disruptions in economic activities.
To conclude, with AL and BNP as the two dominant political parties, each allied with extreme partners in their respective EAs, the EAs appear to be a net negative for Bangladesh. With EAs, the extremist agenda, left and right, gains unwarranted leverage and can lead to polarization of the political landscape, moderate electoral choices are eliminated, the nation becomes exposed to dramatic changes in direction without a popular mandate, and the likelihood of the nation becoming hostage to disruptive political battles rises. It is thus recommended that the EAs are disbanded and banned in Bangladesh.
The writer is Professor, Practice in Finance, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.