Are Bangladesh's Competing Parties Ready to Negotiate?

4 MINS READJul 30, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Are Bangladesh's Competing Parties Ready to Negotiate?
Bangladeshi protesters shout slogans during a demonstration outside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party office in Dhaka, Feb. 16.

In an attempt to fight rising Islamist extremism in Bangladesh, Dhaka announced July 28 the arrests of several members of outlawed jihadist outfit Jamaat al Mujahideen. Violence has plagued the South Asian country since contested national elections in January 2014; the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, known as the BNP, leads a coalition of center-right and Islamist parties against the ruling Awami League. But in recent months a rash of Islamist attacks — against government institutions, security forces, secular bloggers and other civilian soft targets — has led the mainstream opposition to try to distance itself from violent extremists. As the BNP's protest strategy loses momentum, leader Begum Khaleda Zia has indicated that parts of the opposition might be willing to drop some of their demands — such as imposing a neutral caretaker government to oversee elections. The Awami League and the opposition will likely enter difficult negotiations in the coming weeks and months, but violence is set to continue, especially as the Awami League grapples with the burgeoning threat of Islamist extremism.

Large-scale strikes and protests, known locally as hartals, have slowed as the ruling Awami League has stepped up its counterterrorism measures, deflecting some Western criticisms levied against Dhaka following 2014's national elections. Regional support from India, a traditional backer of the Awami League, has also extended beyond a recent border agreement to include discussions on manufacturing investment and counterterrorism cooperation. Garment exports — a critical component of the Bangladeshi economy — faltered earlier this year as BNP-led strikes shut down large sections of the country's transportation infrastructure networks. Yet, in the face of a resolute Awami League, the opposition's protest movement has lost steam, especially in light of the upsurge in Islamist violence. The result has been a strong return on garment sector exports, as well as rising foreign investment interest in Bangladesh — including Chinese-Japanese competition over port infrastructure, manufacturing, power generation and road-and-rail initiatives.

Speaking on July 26, BNP leader Zia announced that the party was dropping its demands for a caretaker government to oversee fresh elections — though the BNP still wants new elections overall. The BNP is unable to apply enough economic or social pressure through its protests to weaken the ruling party, which relies on the tacit backing of the military, security forces, and paramilitary groups to impose order and break up strikes. Zia's concession is expected to result in a quiet, behind-the-scenes restart of talks. Earlier attempts stalled in mid-2014, when the BNP intensified its social unrest movement against what it described as an intransigent Awami League. The ruling party was also facing U.S., British and EU condemnation of its electoral practices. The BNP had hoped that international pressure, including rescinding some of the beneficial tariff arrangements for Bangladeshi garment exports, would force Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to capitulate.

Despite the international community's focus on the Awami League's efforts to maintain security as well as its pro-business policies, the government's position shows few signs of weakening. The BNP and its coalition partners have continued their boycott of elections since the 2014 parliamentary elections, and they are now largely excluded from national and local positions. As Bangladesh works to attract more investment into the country, the BNP must wait years before it can meaningfully reinsert itself into the national political system. As well as being politically viable, there are associated economic benefits, such as oversight of government contracts, aid packages and graft — Bangladesh consistently ranks higher than all other South Asian countries in global corruption indices.

While the BNP's primary tactic has been to oppose the Awami League through strikes and protests, intensifying Islamist violence could force Zia and other BNP leaders to join the government's security initiatives. The Awami League's campaign to arrest and sentence Jamaat-e-Islami's leaders in the lead-up to 2014 elections resulted in the country's largest Islamist political party, and long-time ally of the BNP, leveraging its national grassroots networks, adding much-needed muscle to the BNP protests. But ongoing violence — including several high-profile killings, attacks against secular bloggers and firebomb attacks against buses and trains — has damaged the BNP's standing with the international community.

Since June, the BNP has begun to distance itself from its traditional Islamist partner. Protests called by Jamaat-e-Islami opposing the sentencing of its leaders have seen little public support from BNP leaders and their associated cadres. The BNP could well be ready to uncouple itself from Jamaat-e-Islami and support the Awami League's efforts to contain extremism. If this is the case, the BNP may find its legitimate attempts to re-enter the political system more fruitful than by continuing to pursue a campaign of social disruption that risks giving cover to extremist activities.

The Awami League has been loath to concede any of the BNP's demands, but entering negotiations with the opposition will be welcomed by the United States and the European Union — the primary destinations of Bangladeshi exports. But the Awami League will be eager to broadcast its pursuit of a solution to the country's political impasse, and the BNP's concession on a caretaker government is a significant one. Reductions in public unrest and violence will also assuage the doubts of would-be investors, highlighting a key concern of Hasina's economic agenda. Negotiations will continue to be difficult, though, and Bangladesh's hartals and political violence will continue to taint any negotiation process.

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