Web of crises
The year 2013 has seen Bangladesh getting mired in a complex web of interlinked crises that keep escalating. This commentary enumerates these crises and explores the nature of their cross-feeding.
Crisis of justice
This banner crisis of 2013 gained steam in February with the Shahbagh Movement demanding capital punishment for the indicted war criminals of 1971. The crisis of justice, however, is much wider, and encompasses demand for blasphemy law by the religious right and slowly turning wheels of justice for ordinary citizens and minority.
The issue of a proper interim government to oversee national elections turned into an irreconcilable political stalemate when the current regime enacted in 2011 the 15th constitutional amendment to get rid of the caretaker government system previously constitutionalised by the 1996 13th Amendment. Also, formal election alliances have turned the AL and BNP into hostages to their extremist partners and driven them too far apart for any meaningful dialogue and compromise solution.
Security, law and order crisis
Undeniably the security situation (murders, rapes, robbery, kidnappings, assaults, property damage, etc.) for ordinary citizens has been worsening in recent times, according to various human rights organizations and the March 2013 Cabinet Division report. Alongside, politically motivated crimes and violence including extrajudicial abductions and killings are also on the rise. Such violations spiked in 2013 as political turmoil intensified.
Freedom of expression crisis
While the liberty of expression and association has been under transgression by various regimes since 1971, the situation has become quite abject in recent times. Whether it is ordinary a citizen or blogger, media editor or commentator, writer or member of civil society, or member/activist of political parties, no one feels safe in expressing themselves freely without the fear of threat and/or punitive retribution from the forces adversely or critically reflected upon.
Over time, influence peddling and corruption have become pervasive, most recently illustrated by the Padma Bridge financing fiasco, share market scam, and the banking scams. Two key drivers of the ever escalating governance crisis are the Party First, Country Second (PFCS) politics by the major political parties, in position or opposition, and the lucrative financial dividend from governance power.
Cross-Feeding of crises
Let us start with the ruling party's realisation that, to win the next electoral contest or to survive the loss afterwards, it needs to beef up financial and organisational resources, while drawing down the same for the opposition. Carrying out this plan necessarily involves widespread influence peddling and PFCS actions across the entire governance machinery including law making, law enforcement actions and judicial interventions and abuses. Thus comes to being the core governance crisis.
To enhance the chances of forming the government and/or to pursue vigorous opposition campaign to dislodge the government, the leading parties find election alliances with the extremist parties to be a necessity and thereby end up yielding to extremist agendas. Further, a ruling party sees competitive edge in changing the interim government format. Of course, the opposition perceives such a change unfavourable to it, and hence attempts to stage ceaseless programmes of disruptive protest activities and aligns even more strongly with its extremist partners. Thus is born the electoral crisis.
As the electoral crisis heats up, staying in power becomes more challenging and the chances of winning the next election becomes more uncertain. The governance crisis then gets deeper since the ruling party engages in even more influence peddling and PFCS governance actions. Meantime, as the opposition senses urgency to survive and to remain relevant, they counteract with their own violent reprisals. The regime's partisan law enforcement lieutenants then carry out orders to brutally and selectively crackdown on the opposition activists. The law and order crisis is now in full swing.
The electoral crisis also spawns the crisis of justice. With an eye on the forthcoming election, the ruling party elongates the war crimes proceedings while leaving room for rigging and revisiting the judicial verdicts. This, however, creates a double-edged crisis of justice, seemingly contradictory (to the fairness of the trial) demand of the Projonmo Movement for capital punishment of the indicted war criminals and the opposition alliance crying foul of the legal process and the regime's overt support to the Projonmo Movement. The atheist belief of the bloggers leading the Projonmo Movement adds fuel to the fire as the opposition redefines the crisis of justice along the fault line of religious belief and finds an ally in Hifazat-e Islam that launches an agitated movement for blasphemy law.
The regime feels even more defensive and aggressively abuses the justice system to jail the opposition leaders and activists on frivolous charges of violence while the latter respond with more strikes and violent protests. Concurrently, the regime drags its feet on dealing justice to the perpetrators of banking and market scams, corruptions (including Padma Bridge financing), politically motivated (like killing of Biswajit and Touki) and general crimes (like murder of Sagar-Runi) against ordinary citizens, crimes against minority (like Ramu-Ukhia) and fatal industrial incidents (like Tazreen factory fire and collapse of Rana Plaza).
Battered by the various crises and unable to contain the opposition, the regime turns desperate to change and control the political narratives and hence embarks upon a regressive campaign of choking up dissents, critiques (individual, political and media) and legitimate political activities (meetings, processions), and repressively controlling the flow of potentially damaging information about its activities (like shutting down media outlets in the midst of late night crack down on unarmed civilians at the Shapla Chottor). With less intensity, but surely, the opposition mounts its own violent campaign of silencing individuals (like the Prajanma bloggers, relative of WCT witness, Fatikchari victims, people defying opposition hartals) perceived to be detrimental to their causes. The nation thus dives into its worst freedom of expression crisis since the ill-perceived BAKSAL experiment after the Liberation War.
In conclusion, it is important to notice that the web of crises (electoral, the law and order, justice and freedom of expression) is fundamentally woven by the aggressive quest of the major political parties to retain or regain governance power and thereby reap the ever increasing governance dividends in the form of financial riches for the party, its leaders, activists and business supporters. Therefore, any long-term and comprehensive solution to the web of 2013 crises would require a roadmap or mechanism to address the core crisis of governance. Meantime, a meaningful step in the right direction would be to dissolve and ban election alliances.
Mo Chaudhury is a professor of Practice at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.