ROAD 79 in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone is a good place for a glance at the state of Bangladesh’s democracy. Here two sides of a house are blocked off by five lorries loaded with sand, and scores of policemen; a third side is blocked by the high walls of the Russian embassy. Khaleda Zia, the leader of Bangladesh’s main opposition party, is living under house arrest. Her followers who have tried to visit have been arrested, detained or turned away.
Mrs Zia, a two-time prime minister, is likely to remain locked up until Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister (pictured above, in duplicate), has been sworn in for another term. Upcoming national elections are a mere technicality. They are to be held on January 5th but their outcome has been known for weeks. Mrs Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 17 allies are boycotting. The government has detained in hospital Mohammad Hossain Ershad, a former dictator and the leader of Jatiyo, the third-largest party, for its participation in the boycott. The next-biggest party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned from taking part on the ground that its overtly religious charter breaches Bangladesh’s secular constitution.
Of 300 elected parliamentary seats, 153 will be uncontested. Of 92m eligible voters, 48.3m will not vote. Those who do may choose between the ruling party’s candidates and candidates beholden to them. In gargantuan Dhaka, voting is to take place in only two of 20 constituencies.
Mrs Zia called a mass rally for December 29th, but the police banned it, cutting transport links into Dhaka and arresting more than 1,000 opposition activists. On the designated day, at the supposed rally site in front of the BNP’s party headquarters, journalists were left to film other journalists.
Elsewhere in the city, lawyers siding with the BNP staged a protest inside the main gate of the Supreme Court, where police tried to disperse them with water cannon and sound grenades. Stick-wielding AL goons stormed the gate to beat the lawyers and chase them away, as the police stood by and watched. The men with sticks took to the streets vowing to take on their counterparts from the BNP, but there were none to be found. In all, two people were killed in Dhaka during the day’s clashes. But there has been no fresh wave of bloodletting since December 26th, when 50,000 troops were deployed to provide extra security.
A few months back the BNP had the moral high ground. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) had overreached in claiming for itself the privilege of overseeing the polls. In 2011 the AL had junked a constitutional mechanism that was intended to rescue the country’s frail democracy from its viciously confrontational two-party politics: an unelected caretaker administration to oversee elections. The caretaker-arrangement had been in place since 1996, after the BNP won 300 of 300 seats, in an election that the AL boycotted. Circumventing the caretaker system for the 2014 vote looks plainly self-serving on the part of the AL. A recent opinion poll shows nearly four out of five Bangladeshis think it a bad idea.
But now the BNP is in disarray and has no better option than to wait out Sheikh Hasina and the AL, hoping that they bring about their own downfall. In the past few months the BNP stepped up its series of crippling strikes, making one-day work weeks the norm. Its thugs, along with hooligans from the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s biggest Islamic party, started killing civilians. This helped the nominally secular AL government make the argument that only it can save Bangladesh. A new manifesto, read out by the prime minister to an assembly of party loyalists and diplomats from Russia, Sri Lanka and Singapore on December 28th, charges that the BNP turned the country into a “valley of death” when it ruled in coalition with the Jamaat between 2001 and 2006. It suggests that since then the BNP has “taken up the role of the Jamaat”—the party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and whose current leadership looks to be headed for the gallows by the time a trial for war crimes is concluded. Reverberations from that trial are mainly to blame for the 500 Bangladeshis who were killed in political violence in 2013, the worst annual toll since independence.
It does not help the BNP’s case that their most recent stint in power made the country look like a kleptocracy. But the AL’s cronies have not been sitting idle either. Financial statements published by the election commission show that the income of one of Sheikh Hasina’s nephews rose 330 times since 2008 (and one of her cousins made off with a nice a two-digit multiple of growth in his reported wealth). After failing to keep the commission from publishing the statements, the prime minister redefined what she considers her “family”. It now excludes greedy nephews and cousins.
Few expect Sheikh Hasina’s stint as an absolute ruler to last more than a year. One of her own advisers says it will be a short-term arrangement. He also insists that the constitution gives the government no choice but to go ahead and hold the poll. Though this is not the only reading of the constitution, it is the one that most suits the AL.
The debate in Dhaka has already turned towards what will bring down the next AL government, the one that has yet to be sworn in. It could be economic stagnation, or a disgruntled army. The former would take time. The latter, insists a mandarin in charge of managing the government’s relations with the army, is unlikely. He speculates that the army will not attempt another “minus-two solution” (consigning the countries’ top two civilian politicians to exile), as it did in 2007. And he might be right. A week ago, the UN forked over additional lucrative peacekeeping duties to the army, which has also won contracts for Russian arms and construction projects, and the navy has been promised two Chinese submarines.
When it all unravels, admits a senior leader with the AL, another election will be held and then the BNP will win. The immediate consequence of the slide towards autocracy will be a tainted legacy for Sheikh Hasina, he says, and a wasted opportunity to organise her own succession. Unlike Mrs Zia, who has an heir in her son Tarique Rahman, at the age of 66 Sheikh Hasina does not does not have a successor. Mrs Zia can afford to wait for a year or so now, if it wins her five in the future. While she rails against her confinement and threatens to wipe Sheikh Hasina’s home district off the map once she returns to power, Mrs Zia is well aware that the very lorries that prevent her leaving her house today are likely someday to help preserve her dynasty.