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Gifts, cash and alienation: How political favours can lead to conflict

The alleged humiliation of a Hindu teacher by a politician in Bangladesh over claims he insulted Islam sparked a national outcry — but the culture of political patronage that sparked the incident is much more sinister. 

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Lawyers and supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) shout slogans against the government in 2015. Credit Lawyers and supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) shout slogans against the government in 2015. Credit: A.M. Ahad / AP/Press Association ImagesAn MP in Bangladesh was recently accused of publicly humiliating a Hindu headmaster over claims he insulted Islam.

Shyamal Kanti Bhakta, who runs a school in the Narayanganj District near Dhaka was forced repeatedly to squat holding his ears with his hands until he was so tired he fell to the floor. Then he was beaten.

In video footage of the May incident, a Jatiya Party lawmaker appears to be meting out the humiliating punishment in front of a jeering crowd. Only a Bengali can fully comprehend the severity of this; it is a ritual humiliation normally reserved for children and robs a person of all dignity. The teacher was sacked by the school board shortly after, and some Islamic groups in the area demanded capital punishment.

But many politicians at the national level kept silent...while a minority was alienated

The footage of Bhakta's degrading treatment went viral on Facebook and YouTube angering many Bangladeshis who took to social media to show their outrage. Tens of thousands of people posted photos of themselves, holding their ears and saying “sorry Sir” in solidarity with the teacher. Young people formed human chains across the country in protest and students showed their anger by holding their ears on campuses.

READ MORE: Why did the murder of a 19-year-old student spark mass protests?

The headteacher was reinstated shortly after by the Bangladeshi government, which said the sacking was illegal and dismissed the school board, according to the BBC. "The head teacher was a victim of injustice. This was a heinous act," Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid told the broadcaster. But many politicians at the national level kept silent in the face of this provocation — standing by while a minority was alienated.

If the allegation is true, the MP who humiliated Bhakta was representing the interests of some of his constituents but endangering others — and possibly inflaming rising tensions in the country more widely.

Interests in a constituency are never homogeneous; the MP privileged the demands of a school committee, who wanted the teacher sacked, over those of the teacher (and by extension the Hindu community he belonged to), exacerbating divisions between communities in his constituency.

When democratic representation fails to at least aspire towards respect for diversity, or even encourages societal divisions, the risk of conflict will intensify.

Time, money and favours

Elected politicians have no choice but to privilege the interests of some above others in their constituency, at least some of the time, when they aim to ‘represent’ their interests.

Any locality has multiple, diverging and even conflicting interests so politicians always find themselves taking sides.

Jobs, contracts, gifts, cash and favours are dispensed by many MPs to their actual and potential supporters

Time, money and favours are always limited and some areas, groups (men, certain ethnic groups, your own party supporters etc.) or individuals will receive more than others. But when does it become unjust and what are the risks? The question should be answered empirically.

In the Bangladesh case, a SOAS/Hansard research project found the risks include intimidation of minorities and widespread patronage by those in powerful positions — including politicians — of their supporters. Jobs, contracts, gifts, cash and favours are dispensed by many MPs to their actual and potential supporters.

Citizens also allege that politicians and their allies direct the benefits of development programmes to their party activists and supporters, leaving those who support the opposition in the cold.

READ MORE: Radical secularisation and Islamist terror in Bangladesh

To his supporters, the representative is benevolent; one constituent expressed a typical view, “The MP is good and he extends his hands for help,” while to the those who get nothing, he is corrupt or at least a huge disappointment. 

One MP commented during an interview by SOAS researchers, “You cannot satisfy all and it is really a hard task. Some people will always be behind you, nothing to do.”

Favours create disenchantment 

The cost of winning support through favours is to create disenchantment.

In the current climate in Bangladesh, such divisions within constituencies can only increase the emerging conflict between and within communities.

Outsiders assume ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups are causing the national problem of increasing violence, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina blames main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, alleging that it has links to terrorists.

This...is making Bangladeshi politics increasingly dangerous

More thoughtful analysis points to the long-standing divisions within Bangladeshi society, which go back to before the War of Independence in 1971.The divisions are based on a complex mix of religious versus secular politics, loyalty towards India or Pakistan, and class inequalities.

Such divisions are further entrenched by the two main political parties — the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party — dispensing patronage that favours their own side.

Almost all current MPs belong to the ruling party and its allies, since the BNP boycotted the last general election. This combination of patronage and lack of political space for the opposition is making Bangladeshi politics increasingly dangerous.

It is tempting to argue in the case of Bangladesh that the ruling party MPs should focus more attention on improving relations with the opposition, rather than giving favours to those who already support them or punishing those that don’t.

Such a recommendation would not necessarily be helpful in other countries.

Ethiopia's hidden underside 

In the case of Ethiopia, citizens complain of their elected representatives that they “never see their face.”

As an MP in Ethiopia you only have to visit your constituency twice a year, according to regulations of the ruling party, so the opportunities to dispense patronage to individuals in constituencies is limited.

Patterns of uneven benefit are created nonetheless.

READ MORE: Unrest in Ethiopia: the ultimate warning shot?

While past regimes are perceived to have favoured the Amhara region of the country, this one — ruling coalition Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn since 2012 — is accused to allowing Tigrayans to harness the benefits of both business and development since 1974.

They have been protesting about local officials demanding bribes

People in the Oromo region, a vast state that covers hundreds of thousands of kilometers in the centre and south-east of the country, make up 40% of the country. They have lost out both historically and in the present.

They have been protesting about local officials demanding bribes, land being confiscated for industrial development that benefits others, and insufficient compensation for the lost land.

Since November 2015, when the Addis Ababa City Integrated Master Plan was announced, protests at the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Oromo farmers have been growing with other groups joining in. 

READ MORE: Who are the Oromo?

Earlier this month, London School of Economics fellow Awol Allo summarised, ‘Ethnic domination forms the hidden underside of the terrorism-politics nexus in the country’.

In Ethiopia the total absence of opposition MPs means any critical discourse takes place entirely outside the Parliament and mostly outside the country.

The opportunities to engage with politicians on this issue, or any other, are minimal.

Like Bangladesh, criticism of the government is deemed unpatriotic and likely to jeopardise efforts to protect national security.

In Ethiopia, civil society and the media are more severely restricted by legislation that purports to prevent terrorism. The backing of foreign powers — especially the US and Europe — for both the Bangladeshi and Ethiopian governments is founded mainly on a security ‘partnership’.  Their co-operation in the ‘War on Terror’ is taken more seriously than their human rights abuses.

The terrifying irony is that the combination of the exclusion of groups —  whether based on religion and party in Bangladesh or ethnicity in Ethiopia — and absence of political space for critique and opposition, means that the risks of widespread violence within each country increases daily.

Are the threats of even greater internal violence being ignored to satisfy Western concerns about terrorism in the US and Europe?

We can revive the well-worn conclusion that a combination of starkly unequal development and insufficient political representation or space to oppose is likely to lead to conflict or violence.

British anthropologist Jonathan Spencer has pointed out that democracy has even deepened social divisions and exacerbated conflict in South Asia, while South African scholar Karl von Holdt argues that in South Africa violence has persisted not despite and external to democracy but as part of it; democracy has been integral to the process of securing benefits for some and exclusion for others.

So, a shallow form of democracy, which relies on the structure of Parliament and the apparent magic power of elections but fails to develop adequate processes of representation and justice, is risky.

But aid donors should not rely on general principles but rather on the complex job of understanding processes of representation and justice in each place.

They should pay attention to the history, contested views and pressures in each place; they should listen to, invest and nurture scholars in those countries.

Research by SOAS/Hansard Society into democracy in Bangladesh and Ethiopia is doing just that on the grounds that research on politics by national scholars is a form of scrutiny that serves a vital purpose in democracy, even more so when other forms are restricted.

The costs of ignoring local and national voices at all levels are far higher than crude abstractions or a superficial glance will reveal.

The humiliation of headmaster is a dramatic example of a widespread phenomena in democracies worldwide – the stark failure of representation by a politician.The risk of such an act of violence is that it can transform the inevitable underlying social tensions in society into endemic conflict.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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