The South Asia Channel

Bangladesh Falls Apart

The political situation in Bangladesh has gone from bad to worse. In the months leading up to national elections, hundreds were killed in political violence, and leaders of opposition political parties were jailed, put under house arrest, or forced to flee the country. With the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotting elections in January and voter turnout as low as 20 percent, the electoral outcome is widely considered illegitimate.

While Bangladesh has never been the epitome of democracy, the dubious elections and ongoing violence have pushed the country to the brink of disaster. The unstable political situation threatens Bangladesh's economy, already under fire due to extraordinarily low wages and unsafe factories.

With no signs of the violence stopping or stability returning, Bangladesh seems likely to continue to spiral downward in 2014, headed towards another military coup or full-blown civil war.

The blame for the current situation can be laid squarely on the ongoing political rivalry between Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, often called the "two ladies." Zia and Hasina have traded off ruling Bangladesh for the past 20 years. Each is in control of one of the country's two largest political parties, with Hasina in charge of the Awami League and Zia in charge of the BNP. They are the most powerful political figures in Bangladesh, and their bitter rivalry has led the country to the brink of disaster.

Given their past, it is highly unlikely that the two ladies will ever reach a peaceful political compromise. They have ignored multiple opportunities to find middle ground over the past few months, instead choosing to hurl recriminations at each other. Neither was willing to budge an inch before the election, even though doing so could have helped stop violence from tearing the country apart. Their actions have proven that winning is more important to them than stopping the violence or governing Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has few good options in its future. Since the elections, Hasina has refused to engage in discussions with the opposition as long as they continue to support unrest. Because "unrest" can be defined as anything from peaceful protests to an outright terrorist attack, it is unlikely that Hasina will engage in talks with the opposition in the near future. She has little reason to, since she already has what she wants: another term in office with the continued support of India and only muted condemnation from the rest of world.

Even so, one-party rule under the Awami League is unlikely to stabilize anytime soon. Opposition violence continues, and the BNP shows no signs of backing down. Stable one-party rule cannot begin until the opposition has been sufficiently repressed so that they no longer pose a threat - and the BNP and other opposition parties are far from broken yet.

Furthermore, Hasina's popular backing is beginning to crumble, as low voter turnout in the last election indicates. Voter turnout of only 20-30 percent does not mean the majority of the population opposes Hasina per se; however, it does indicate that the backbone of her popular support is small. A largely indifferent population and a militant opposition are a shaky basis for an autocracy. Such a regime would need consistent and unwavering military and police backing, something on which Hasina cannot count.  

Given these dynamics, the military may yet step in and take control in a coup. The military has taken control from civilian governments before, most recently in 2007, when Bangladesh faced a similar situation. Fraudulent elections, that time by the BNP, and political violence led the military to wrest control from civilian leaders and declare a state of emergency.

As in 2007, however, a military coup today would suppress dissention and violence for short time, at most. It would not be able to address the underlying causes of the current crisis: the feud between Zia and Hasina, as well as the mentality that electoral victory means the winner prosecutes the loser. The country is just as polarized now as it was six years ago, if not more.

In the worst scenario, the political violence would continue to escalate until Bangladesh descends into civil war. The progression might be similar to the current Syrian civil war, in which protests morphed into armed opposition and the development of militant groups, before gaining the momentum to become a full-fledged war.

Bangladesh is currently between the first and second stages: The government is cracking down on ongoing protests, but it is unclear how far the opposition has moved towards militancy. One of the main opposition groups, Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, has been launching attacks against the Hindu minority. While these attacks are not directed at the government, they have a political dimension, since Bangladesh's Hindus are more likely to support the secular Awami League.

The attacks are also a clear indication of Bangladesh's crumbling domestic security - a product of a growing security vacuum. Civil wars are rarely a simple conflict between government and opposition. They are also opportunities to persecute minorities, often because the powers that are nominally in charge are stretched too thin to offer protection.

Two bad options

Amid the current turmoil, Hasina's grip on power seems unlikely to last. If opposition protests continue, the country will be left with two bad options.

One is a military coup, which would suppress political tensions but not resolve them. The parties' opposing visions of Bangladesh remain even deeper than the Zia-Hasina feud: The BNP defines Bangladesh primarily as an Islamic nation, while the Awami League backs a secular state based on Bengali ethnicity. Since it would not begin to resolve that tension, a military coup would likely land Bangladesh in a similar political situation in just a few more years.

The other option -- civil war -- would come at a catastrophic cost, potentially including hundreds of thousands of deaths, a massive refugee influx into India, and the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh's Hindu population.

Regardless of which direction the country takes, 2014 looks likely to be a very bad year for Bangladesh.

Kathryn Alexeeff has a master's degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and has worked at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center. All views expressed are her own.

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