Now entering its second month, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) backed transport blockade continues to threaten the ruling Awami League’s (AL) ability to govern. While calling for the installation of a caretaker government to oversee fresh elections, the BNP has stepped up its campaign against an administration they describe as unconstitutional and illegitimate. In January, tensions began to rise in the lead up to “Democracy Killing Day”; the first anniversary of the 2014 parliamentary election boycotted by the BNP. In response, police banned protests, introduced nighttime curfews and shut down access to smartphone messaging services Viber and Tango, which were being used by anti-government protestors to communicate and coordinate their activities. But as the death toll climbs higher and the fire bombings and train derailments continue, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the measures being used to contain the spread of political violence are ineffectual. What, then, is the best course of action for Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her government? How will they find a way out of this political deadlock?
In a recent interview with the AFP, BNP leader Khaleda Zia said: “[e]very conscious and conscientious person in Bangladesh knows that the only way to resolve the current political crisis is to hold an inclusive, competitive and meaningful election.” To delay even further, she says, would result in the situation in Bangladesh becoming more complex. As such, the best solution would be to hold a “fair election” based on “consensus of all parties and through talks.” However, the credibility of Zia’s desire for a consensus-based resolution to this problem has come under scrutiny, as the BNP abandons democratic principles in favour of violent street politics. As the battle lines become more entrenched and the opportunities for political rapprochement diminish, the BNP would do well to recognise that continued violence could easily push them past the point of no return.
While a new election offers one possible solution to the impasse, it does not yet appear on the AL’s political horizon. Hasina has stated her intention to remain in office until 2019, while rejecting calls for dialogue with the BNP, whom she has described as “murderers.” While the Bangladeshi Prime Minister might not see how fresh rounds of negotiations would improve her position, the rising economic costs of conflict could force her hand. Should the they rise too high, the government might have no choice but to negotiate, but If they remain at manageable levels, negotiation would serve no other purpose than to legitimise a political movement which has no constitutional standing. In either event, the AL should realise that further marginalisation of the BNP from the political mainstream would be sub-optimal; by responding to dissent with violence, threats of imprisonment and the diminution of civil liberties, the AL are making it more likely that the opposition will radicalise even further.
As it seems unlikely that the AL will negotiate with the BNP on their own terms, alternative means of resolving the stand-off must be considered. A likely scenario – and one which was alluded to by Sheikh Hasina on January 21 – is that Zia will be arrested on charges of inciting violence and destruction of property. Indeed, charges of “instigating arson attack” have already been filed against her in the capital Dhaka, central Comilla and Panchagarh. And although Zia has refused to accept liability for the attacks, she has declared herself “ready to face any consequences as our backs have been pushed against the wall.”
A second likely scenario is military intervention. Although military rule has been a recurrent feature in Bangladesh’s political history, the AL will not willingly transfer their own power to the hands of the generals. If, however, they are unable to resolve the crisis on their own, they may very well prefer a military junta to the possibility of a BNP-led government.
By failing to engage each other meaningfully in dialogue, both of Bangladesh’s mainstream political parties have created a political void which has in recent weeks begun to fill with violence, crime and extremism. Violent Islamic groups, which view the AL and the BNP as anathema to their own ambitions for a religious state, have begun to emerge. Should this situation be allowed to continue, the consequences for Bangladesh are potentially devastating. In the wider interests of law and order, the AL’s political ambitions and those of the BNP must be put aside before it’s too late.