There is no denying that the current political situation in Bangladesh is very grave. The cycle of current politically-motivated violence has caused over a hundred deaths so far and many more serious injuries as well as enormous damage to the economy. Naturally, concerned citizens are worried and have recently urged the Honourable President as the guardian of the State to hold a national dialogue involving all political parties with a view to arriving at a national consensus on certain issues – such as strengthening the Election Commission for organising free, fair, and participatory national elections in the future.
Unfortunately, some senior members of the governing party have been very quick in rejecting the idea of a national dialogue outright, smelling some sort of conspiracy. However, we want to be optimistic, for it is optimism that can keep us going; it is a basic ingredient for our survival and progress. Therefore, we are still hopeful that a national dialogue will take place sooner or later and eventually there will be some agreement on the issue of free and fair elections to end the current political impasse.
Yet, the question remains: will these means be enough to end the increasingly violent tendency in our society or polity?
The answer to this question would require understanding the underlying causes of social or political violence. To begin with, we need to internalise the point that conflict (social or inter-personal) is a fact of social life, but violence is not. While some conflicts may end in violence, not all conflicts lead to violence. Thus, the deeper issue here is not about ending conflict, but to prevent conflict from becoming violent. That is, the challenge for the populace is to find social or institutional mechanisms that allow mediation of conflict through a peaceful manner. Herein lies democracy’s greatest appeal. Democracy is the best known political or governance system with its ability to settle social conflict or differences in a non-violent way.
Ironically, politics has become increasingly violent in Bangladesh when one of the fundamental State principles is democracy. The people of Bangladesh did not expect political repression and state violence by party goons and paramilitary forces (e.g. Rakkhi Bahani) in an independent Bangladesh; they have laid down their lives for establishing a democratic Bangladesh; hence the experience of the early years of our independence was unfortunate and disappointing. The goriest experience of course, has been the killing of Bangabandhu and his family members, and the legacy of blood that ensued.
One disturbing nature of political violence is the increasing tendency towards physical annihilation of ‘the other,’ that seems to have intensified since the 1990s after the restoration of democracy. While both major political parties worked hand in hand against the autocratic regime of General Ershad, they turned on each other when democracy was restored. Assassinations, contract killings, and abductions of political opponents have become common features of our body politic. Politicians no longer hesitate to openly issue threats of physical violence against opponents and their annihilation. Senior government leaders frequently threaten to extinguish the leaders of the opposition from the face of the earth, even when they stand in august Parliament. Party workers are now called ‘activists’ or ‘cadres.’ Every civic association has become divided along party lines as if the fault-line runs right across our entire society.
So, one can naturally deduce that our democracy is not the ‘ideal’ for which people struggled and thousands laid down their lives, hence it needs to be supplemented. This is the basis of the proposals of the eminent citizens to strengthen the Election Commission in order to ensure fair and free elections. However, fair and free elections are necessary, but they themselves are not sufficient for consolidating democracy or preventing conflict from turning violent. A vital factor in this regard is the nature of civil society organisations, including political parties, and civic engagement.
The findings of a leading scholar of ethnic violence, Professor Ashutosh Varshney, are very instructive here. His research on ethnic violence in India and elsewhere, shows that networks of civic engagement, such as business associations, professional organisations, reading clubs, film clubs, sports clubs, NGOs, trade unions, and cadre-based political parties play very different roles in ethnic conflict depending on whether they are based along inter-ethnic or intra-ethnic lines. Civil society organisations formed along inter-ethnic networks build bridges and manage tensions, and hence are agents of peace. The opposite is the case when communities organised only along intra-ethnic lines. In such cases, the interconnections with other communities are very weak or even non-existent, and hence ethnic violence is quite likely. It should be part of our common humanity that we wish to know and get to know ‘the other.’
Professor Varshney also found that everyday forms of engagement or routine interactions of life, such as visitations of families from different communities, eating together regularly, jointly participating in each other’s festivals, allowing children of different ethnic groups to play together in the neighbourhood are not as sturdy as the associational forms, especially when confronted with attempts by politicians to polarise people along ethnic lines. It is the elementary forms of social and craft associations that are of primary importance.
What are the implications of these findings for violent Bangladesh politics? Can we attribute our increasingly confrontational politics bent on annihilating ‘the other’ to organisation of various professional associations, ranging from the Bar Association to 4th class employees associations, along party lines? These professional associations no longer serve as bridges among political parties as they used to in the old days. All our civic society organisations and professional associations were once united associations or organisations. Over time, our social capital has frayed as politics became increasingly annihilatory, and those organisations have bifurcated or trifurcated. Instead of diffusing tensions, they now aggravate conflict. The country is now caught in a vicious circle of annihilatory politics and divided civic organisations along party lines reinforcing each other.
So, the proposed national dialogue, if it takes place, must also address this vicious circle and discourage the formation of professional and craft bodies along party lines. This does not however mean barring professionals from engaging in politics as individuals. This ‘social frown’ should also extend to political parties or civic associations along religious or ethnic lines.
The above only addresses some current institutional aspects of social and political conflict. One also needs to identify socio-economic factors that rationalise or incentivise social conflict. In short, the parties involved expect to materially gain (miss) from winning (losing). When stakes are very high, parties can engage in a non-cooperative game where rivals try to annihilate their opponents with the aim to capture the entire pie. This is certainly worse than a competitive game where the ‘winner takes all,’ although the competition between the parties may be very intense, as only one party can win.
What has modified the link between politics and economics, especially since the 1990s? This was the period of rapid opening up and deregulation of the economy which saw the rise of the ‘new rich.’ This was also the period that witnessed wide-spread corruption that pushed Bangladesh to the top of the corruption ranking ladder as well as to the top of the least developed countries from where illicit transfer of funds occur. This was also the period when the ‘new rich’ captured state power, and politics and business became intertwined.
There is, however, nothing wrong for business people to engage in politics or politicians to engage in business. The problem arises when economic rent becomes too large through business-politics collusion; politics can become increasingly confrontational as the material loss (gain) for the losing (winning) side would be quite substantial.
Nevertheless, the presence of large economic rent at least provides a basis for the warring parties to have a common interest in avoiding the destruction of the economy. The challenge then is to find institutional mechanisms to manage the distribution of economic gains from politics in a manner that is somehow linked to a democratic polity. In this regard, it would be worthwhile for the national dialogue to consider a modest proposal by Professor Salim Rashid of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
The proposal involves handing out all government contracts to each political party according to the numbers they gain in the popular vote. For example if parties A, B, C, D, get 40, 30, 20 and 10 per cent of the vote, this is the ratio in which each party will get government contracts. This should apply only to all parties that get a certain minimum (say 2 per cent) of the popular vote in order to avoid fracturing contracts.
In this system, since all opposition parties will have economic goods to share after the election, the incentives for destroying the property of the state or people should be much diminished; the desire to slow economic growth should be lessened since all parties will lose. Additionally, each party should have the incentive to make effective use of their contracts, since the performance of their appointees will be compared with those of their rivals.
The system should also have beneficial impacts on the working of democracy and governance. Since political parties would be judged on their performance in implementing government contracts given to them transparently and explicitly according to their shares of votes, they likely have the incentive to outdo one another in establishing their credentials as competent and honest or not corrupt. In addition, smaller parties would have an incentive to maintain an independent voice which is crucial for ensuring transparency and good governance.
However, a system of distributing economic gains according to proportion of votes parties managed to get may not be consistent with the political system based on the ‘winner takes all’ principle as it is now in Bangladesh. Therefore, for the system to work more coherently, our parliament should also have proportional representations. That is, the number of members from each party should be in proportion of votes they receive so that both the mechanisms for distributing economic gains and sharing political power become proportional to respective parties’ appeal to the voters or populace.
There is, however, another approach to get the warring parties to cooperate. That happens when they are convinced that both sides would lose from a non-cooperative game. Recall, the US and former USSR cooperated to agree to nuclear disarmament when they realised both would lose from a confrontation. As a matter of fact, many are talking of a third party threat to force cooperation among major political parties. However, institutionalisation of such a third party involvement would not be a very welcoming outcome if we are to consolidate a democratic polity.
Readers are urged to read this opinion piece in conjunction with my earlier piece, “A modest proposal,” published a year ago on 7 January, 2014.
Anis Chowdhury is a former Professor of Economics from the University of Western Sydney, Australia.