25 February 2015

Who is the Opposition?

Bangladesh is a Muslim nation that defies western expectations. It's a Muslim nation in which the two most powerful politicians, leaders of the country's major political parties, are women. Khaleda Zia is a former prime minister and the current leader of the opposition to her rival, Sheikh Hasina. There's a warrant out for her arrest on an embezzlement charge. Zia has been trying to force Hasina's government to call early elections after boycotting last fall's parliamentary votes. Her party accuses Hasina of authoritarian tendencies while Hasina darkly accuses Zia of terrorism. I can't judge between the two leaders or their parties. But I noted something interesting in the global coverage of their power struggle and the arrest warrant. Browsing through the headlines on a Google News page, I found Zia almost invariably identified as the "Opposition" leader. It's an accurate description, and for non-Bangladeshi readers it probably makes sense to identify her affiliation as Opposition rather than BNP or Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But how often do you hear about "Opposition leader" John Boehner or "Opposition leader" Mitch McConnell? If you're an American you'd probably see no reason for such labels, since you know the names of your country's major parties and their relation to each other. In fact there's nothing wrong with identifying Republicans by their party name or GOP rather than Opposition. The problem is actually on the other side.

When the news identifies a conflict between parties as "Government" vs. "Opposition" we're tempted to think of the conflict in polarized terms, to imagine the stakes higher than they actually may be. American liberals, I suspect, are especially tempted to see such polarized conflicts as struggles with freedom or human rights at stake. Predictably, in Bangladesh the BNP sees political motives behind the warrant for their leader's arrest. I expect many American observers to sympathize with that perception, to the extent that they're aware of the crisis in Bangladesh, because they tend to be suspicious anytime an "Opposition" leader in a foreign country is arrested or even accused of a crime. The prosecution of Alexei Navalny in Russia is the current textbook case; few western observers take seriously the charges against an Opposition leader, while perceptions of Vladimir Putin only encourage further skepticism. The dichotomy of Government and Opposition shapes perceptions of the underdog individual threatened by the monolithic state. Since dissent is the only proof of freedom many will accept, whenever a dissident falls into legal jeopardy people feel that freedom itself is in jeopardy if not under direct attack by a lying government. We might step back from such extreme perceptions if we recognized a Navalny or a Zia as just another partisan politician. Labels won't change the truth of each case either way, but we should want to avoid extending the "partisan immunity" principle in domestic politics across the globe. In the U.S. partisans often protest against a "criminalization of politics" when their own people are accused of crimes, but they don't extend the same courtesy when the other party is similarly embarrassed. Cynicism aside, that's because the parties here know each other well enough, and are so nearly evenly matched in voting strength, that neither can be taken seriously in the abstract Opposition role so often assigned to dissident parties abroad. Americans as a whole are jaded enough to recognize that crooks are likely to exist even within each person's favorite party, but we seem less jaded when we look beyond our borders. The tragedy of politics everywhere is that sometimes the only thing standing between a population and a really lousy government is some sort of a crook. Putin may be an authoritarian goon, but Navalny may also be a crook. Hasina may be trying to consolidate power dangerously, but Zia may also be a crook. Political choices are rarely as morally simple as we'd like them to be. If they were, we wouldn't see so many polarized electorates and politicized criminal cases. A desire to oversimplify such conflicts may only complicate them further.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Given the staunch refusal of politicians in our own state (of both parties) to support any sort of ethics bill (which is sorely needed) I have come to the conclusion that most politicians are criminals. In most cases that have come to the public notice, the politician in question simply resigns his/her position and that's the end of it. Very few ever actually get tried, let alone spend time in prison when found guilty.

So why should we expect any better of politicians elsewhere?