Friday, 16 November 2012

Election Alliances in Bangladesh: A Critical Review

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Election alliances in Bangladesh

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.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Rohingyas and Bangladesh

The Daily Star
Monday, November 5, 2012

Rohingyas and Bangladesh

The bouts of ethnic violence in the Rakhine region of Miyanmar since mid-2012 have once again triggered the attempted exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh. The purpose of this commentary is to explore key dimensions of the Rohingya tragedy and potential courses of action from the Bangladesh perspective.

First, the conflicting and growing strategic interests of the global power players in the land and sea area surrounding Myanmar (and Bangladesh) continue to prevent any strong independent action on the part of these players to bring about and enforce a mutually fair redress for the Rohingya trgedy. Such a redress would perhaps involve creating an autonomous Rohingya-majority territory in Myanmar carved out of north-western Rakhine with its political and governance structure similar to the territories of Canada and USA, for instance.

Second, the Government of Miyanmar (GoM) continues to deny citizenship to the Rohingyas claiming that the Rohingya ancestors, originating from areas now part of Bangladesh, unlawfully trespassed into and settled in the Rakhine region. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB), on its part, argues that it is an internal problem of Myanmar, and a more accommodative GoB policy regarding the Rohingyas would simply encourage continued governance failure in Myanmar.

Meantime, the tragedy continues to deepen with all of its manifold implications for Bangladesh, such as economic rehabilitation, cultural assimilation, risk of strengthening of anti-secular extremism, risk of counter violence against the Buddhists in Bangladesh, risk of infiltration of illegal arms and weapons, risk of border tension in case of Rakhine insurgency (of ethnic alliances of separatists) operating from within Bangladesh, risk of strengthening of separatist forces in the southeastern areas of Bangladesh, etcetera. The blame game (as much as the blames may be true) and the associated lack of commitment to the humanity of the Rohingyas do not seem like productive courses of action for Bangladesh.

Third, there is no legislation in Bangladesh specifically targeted at handling refugees or asylum seekers. Instead, the GoB relies on the 1946 Foreigners Act that grants it sweeping power. Further, Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. This legal void has provided utmost discretion to the GoB in dealing with the Rohingya refugees. For example, Bangladesh is yet to document/register the vast majority (221,000 out of the reported 250,000) of the Rohingyas already in Bangladesh, most of them since 1991-92.

Without any legal status, these Rohingyas do not qualify for any official humanitarian assistance and have been living in sub-human conditions. While respecting the international law of non-refoulement, Bangladesh did not expel the undocumented Rohingyas, but the 2012 actions of repelling the asylum seekers indicate a reluctance to respect this law going forward. Further, in November 2010, the GoB suspended the UNHCR programme for resettlement of Rohingyas abroad and has since rebuffed strong appeals from the UNHCR to revoke the suspension.

Granted that the internal security concerns of Bangladesh may be well-taken, the question is why twenty years (since 1992) is not a long enough period of sub-human living for the undocumented Rohingyas without access to lawful employment, education, health, freedom of movement, justice system and international assistance.

Fourth, the 250,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh represent a tiny 0.17% of the country's population of 150 million, and only one-eighth of the annual growth (1.37%) of population. Further, if the documented Rohingyas are rehabilitated in low density areas, additional amenities and infrastructure needs will be minimal. With legal status, it is also expected that the economic productivity and consumption of the Rohingyas and the inflow of international assistance for them will rise. Thus, their registration is not likely to result in either a population burden or an economic baggage. Without documentation, however, not only the are economic benefits foregone, the Rohingyas may in fact become increasingly desperate and vulnerable to recruitment by criminals, extremists and political opportunists.

Fifth, there is a risk of ethnic clash and separatist turmoil if the Rohingyas are all rehabilitated in the south-eastern region of Bangladesh. For example, if all 250,000 Rohingyas are relocated to the Bandarban district, they will become a dominant ethnic majority there. Therefore security concerns warrant a spatially diversified rehabilitation, possibly dispersing a significant number of Rohingyas to the northern and western districts and perhaps the off-shore islands of Bangladesh.

Lastly, it is in the long-term interests of Bangladesh to be seen as a nation that genuinely cares about the sufferings of fellow human beings. Unbalanced concerns about internal security and geopolitics should not cloud the recollection of traumatic ethnic and political persecution of the Bangladeshis themselves in the not so distant past, nor should it be lost that a sufficiently large segment of the world was always there for Bangladesh whenever it needed economic and humanitarian assistance, especially at times of severe natural calamities. The care and assistance needed by the Rohingyas surely pales in contrast.

While mindless compassion can be reckless, so can be heartless pragmatism. Hence, it is a reasonable balance between the two that Bangladesh needs regarding the Rohingyas. Clearly the transition from defending minorities within own borders to accommodating minorities across the borders is fraught with unpleasant challenges, but continued deferral of taking up the challenges is not a sustainable choice either.

Such a recognition could perhaps start with: (a) unequivocal condemnation of the acts of violence in Rakhine as unacceptable by the GoB, civil society and other collective forums, (b) registration of the undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh, (c) cooperation with relief organisations to channel humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, (d) articulation and enactment of a comprehensive refugee policy, and (e) leadership by the GoB in orchestrating a multilateral alliance to address the Rohingya tragedy. In other words, a combination of unequivocal moral support, refuge and relief efforts within an internationally accepted legal framework, and mobilisation of interested powerful partners are called for.

The writer is Professor, Practice in Finance, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.