After publishing my most recent column, in which I imagined the elevator speech I would give to Prime Minister Hasina and her supporters, I was asked what I would say to the leadership of Bangladesh’s opposition parties if given the chance. I confess that I had to pause to think about how to make the most of this opportunity. At first, I focused on whether to advise the opposition to participate in the next election regardless of whether their demands for a neutral election-time government were met. After all, this is the Catch-22 that has confronted the opposition over the last several election cycles. Ultimately, I decided that addressing this would not be the best use of my time, in part because I don’t know the answer to this question.
Instead, I think the best use of my time would be to challenge the opposition leadership to take things a step further and think about what they would do once elected. As I noted in my earlier imagined pitch to the incumbent, history tells us that it is a question of when, not if, the Bangladesh opposition will come to power. Whether that takes place this election cycle or not, ultimately those currently in opposition will one day find themselves in office. When this takes place, the real challenge facing them will be to govern, and more importantly to demonstrate that they will do so differently than their predecessors (including ones in which they may have participated).
In an earlier column, I highlighted the challenge of putting Humpty Dumpty together again. Given the damage that has been done to Bangladesh’s institutions over the past two decades it will be a herculean challenge for the next government to rebuild and restore confidence. The civil bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, security forces, and the judiciary will need to prioritize merit over political loyalty in appointment and promotion. In preparing to assume power, Bangladesh’s next government will need concrete plans for systematically addressing these challenges. It will be a daunting task.
As difficult as the technical task of rebuilding will be, however, the more daunting underlying challenge is to develop a fundamentally new approach to politics and government. It will be tempting for Bangladesh’s next government to simply settle scores and punish those who participated in, or supported, the previous regime. Those frozen out of opportunities in the public and private sectors over previous decades will look for opportunities to make themselves whole. Following this familiar playbook will only perpetuate the destructive cycle that has marked Bangladeshi politics for most of the country’s history. It will take real leadership to resist the pressures to look backwards rather than forward.
The current government’s tenure in office will end once the country’s population and the pillars that support the regime decide it is time for a change. It remains to be seen whether the current opposition can convince the country’s citizens that they can be that change.