This article was originally published on the website of The Hague Peace Projects as part of a 3-article series on the upcoming Bangladesh elections on December 30.
Bangladesh until 1991 was a military regime (1). The traces of such former militarization are ever-present in society and crystallize through the need to stay in power that surges once elections take place. In 2013, a Freedom in the World report indicated that Bangladesh’s political situation was seemingly “ready to spin out of control” (1). On the one hand, issues such as corruption, lack of press freedom and poorly working checks and balances interfere with the fairness of regularly held elections (1). On the other hand, the political culture in itself is based on antagonization (2). Political conflicts are in a perpetually escalated state and are carried out not over ideological differences, but as vicious cycles of revenge and assertion (2).
While political agendas and critical topics may change, what persists is nonetheless a deep-rooted political culture that “resembles a bare-knuckle fight—bloody, vicious, without rules, and sometimes fatal.” (2)
This last of three articles (read here part 1 and part 2) on the Bangladeshi elections attempts to understand the source of this political and electoral violence by drawing on various theories of violence and reports on oppositional oppression.
Symbolic Image. The last bare-knuckle fight, Farnborough, Hampshire, 17th April 1860 (1951).
Political violence comes in various forms. One form, for instance, expresses itself in arguments on differences of opinion. Arguably, although arguments should serve the purpose of convincing one another, certain political debates at higher level are mere assertions and proclamations of opinions, meant to continue for an indefinite amount of time. Second, political violence can take the form of physical clashes. This term covers street fights, attacks on rallies, strikes, protests, sieges and others (2). Such clashes are not primarily driven by political opposition towards each other, but by internal dynamics of being united against an alienated opponent. In Bangladesh, the second form of political violence takes prominence. As Moniruzzaman observes, “institutional interaction between parties is largely overshadowed by non-institutional methods of interaction” (2). Hence, the population takes matters into its own hands, as the prospect of elites securing the country’s governance is in the stars. What follows is an assertion of persistence, often taking the form of attacking another party’s rally, which in turn is followed by a demonstration of strength by those that were attacked. To illustrate the dimensions of the physical clashes, one needs only look at the 2016 Union Parishad Election, in which electoral violence reached a record high when over one hundred people died in fights between Awami League and BNP supporters (3).
Theories of political violence rarely cover all aspects of case studies, and it is thus natural that Bangladesh is no exception. In fact, Bangladesh’s electoral violence rather conforms to its own logic. Most researchers assume that political violence is merely temporal, applied to defy general norms only until a certain goal has been reached, namely that of inclusion of deviant separate ideology. Violence by political parties in Bangladesh, however, is not a means leading to an end – it is the end itself.
In ideal constitutional regimes, according to Talcott Parsons, citizens and their political representatives come to a tacit agreement: As long as one side exercises restraint in its political demands, the other side will in return exercise restraint in oppressing and coercing (4). Take away some of the two ingredients for a more or less violence-free society, however, the situation becomes tricky: In Bangladesh, parties upon assuming office immediately marginalize and harass the opposition (5). This phenomenon is common to all major parties. “Former opposition parties [are] therefore quick to take revenge on their outgoing rivals virtually every time party governments changed through elections […]” (5). What results is a vicious cycle: without the above-mentioned promise of restraint, oppositional parties frequently cite repression by the ruling party as a legitimization of violence. The ruling party, scared of being repressed itself if it was to lose office, harshens its measures of oppression of the opposition, yet again providing the opposition with even more cause for violence (2). Another aspect worth investigating is that violence is usually interpreted as a danger signal. Political violence, as argued by Coser, can be seen as an “indicator of how serious the group is in pressing its claim” (6). But in Bangladesh, erupting violence is much more than that. It is the status quo, habituated in politics. It is the path political figures take if they want to be heard or taken seriously. Having become the language in which politics speak, political violence in Bangladesh is institutionalized.
Causes of violence are deep-rooted, and examining them fully is a major task of its own. However, some conclusions can be drawn on the origins of political violence based on the last fifty years of Bangladeshi history. Generally, the 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan is seen as a crucial development among researchers. After its independence, the whole of Bangladesh was under adrenaline, with large quantities of weapons floating around deprived of their original purpose. The newly founded Bangladesh quickly turned into a military regime; the first government introduced a policy that provided Members of Parliament with light machine guns. In turn, a party-internal policy led to arms being distributed to the student front of the ruling party in order to secure the public (2). The culture of armed violence is thus not just a remnant of the Liberation War that is still within society, but was actively introduced by the first government in order to build a nation (2). Of course, this explanation does not tackle the issue fully.
In early November at an election rally, the alliance Jatiya Oikyafront of which the BNP is a member turned to voters calling to “stand strong”, reminding voters that they “are the owner of the state” (7). Although such proclamations in theory reflect fundamental concepts of democracy, the Oikyafront’s speech threatened to intensify agitation and take to the street if its demands were not heard (7). The BNP’s Standing Committee Member Hossain warned: “Give us a solution or else get ready to face a movement” (7). Although early analyses of the upcoming 2018 elections gasped at their peaceful nature and reported that violence was unfolding slower than had been expected, expressions of violence are thus not at all absent.
Disclaimer: The author is not an expert on political violence, and the analysis thus draws on conclusions of other authors. The opinion portrayed in this article does not promise to have covered the case study perfectly in all aspects, but hopes to have given a general overview of the problematic and an introduction to the matter.
(1) Riaz, Ali. “Bangladesh’s Failed Election.” Journal of Democracy 25(2) (2014): 119-130.
(2) Moniruzzaman, Mohammed. “Party Politics and Political Violence in Bangladesh: Issues, Manifestation and Consequences.” South Asian Survey 16(1) (2009): 81-99.
(4) Parsons, Talcott. “Some reflections on the place of force in social process.” Sociological theory and modern society (1967): 264-96.
(5) Lorch, Jasmin. “Elections in Bangladesh: Political Conflict and the Problem of Credibility.” E-International Relations (2014): 1-7.
(6) Coser, Lewis. Men of Ideas: a Sociologist’s View (1965). New York: Simon & Schuster (1997).