Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bangladesh generals plan anti-corruption drive


Five days after Bangladesh's president, at the insistence of the army, declared a state of emergency, resigned his post as head of the caretaker government and cancelled the elections that were due to be held next Monday, the full implications of the latest twist in Bangladesh's political drama are only just becoming clear. Few now have any doubt that the country is set for a lengthy period of military-backed technocratic rule.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official and ex-central bank governor summoned by the generals on Friday to replace President Iajuddin Ahmed as de facto prime minister, is now framing rules to determine how authoritarian this regime will be. Diplomats say the army charged him with executing a five-point agenda that the generals presented to the president in a tense three-hour meeting the previous day.

No one yet knows how long this period of suspended democracy will last. Under the constitution, there is no time limit to Mr Ahmed's technocratic rule, as the emergency was declared when parliament had already been dissolved. Donor countries say the answer depends on how sweeping are the changes that the military now plans to impose.

Diplomats say the generals' unpublished five-point agenda consists of a drive to clean up the country's biased electoral machinery; a pledge to improve governance in the civil service; an anti-corruption drive that would cleanse the nation's politics; the depoliticisation of the judiciary; and reform of the crippled power sector.

Western diplomats make clear they have no qualms in welcoming a period of military-backed technocratic rule. Had rigged elections gone ahead on January 22, in the face of a boycott by the Awami League opposition party, most expected a bloodbath. They now want the military-backed caretaker government to clean house, but to do so as fast as possible.

"The main goal was to stop the election because it could have led to civil war," says one. "No one regrets what has happened. The army is now the power behind the scenes and if it's for 18 months, it's for 18 months. But we could well have opened a can of worms that ends up with something far worse in the form of a lengthy period of military rule. We need a shake-up, but it must be kept within reasonable bounds."

With its credibility now on the line, many believe the military will seek deep-seated reform and that this could take a year or more. At a minimum, this will include updating the voters' list, providing ID cards to 90m voters, and establishing a fully-autonomous election commission that would do away with the flawed system of charging caretaker governments withoverseeing elections.

The real question, however, is whether the army is serious about rooting out the corruption that has eroded virtually all public trust in Bangladeshi politicians. Unless the army gives real teeth to an anti-corruption commission capable of weeding out venal candidates, observers say all the other changes to the mechanics of the electoral machinery may prove worthless.

Most political analysts say that any genuine crackdown on corruption would have to start with the clique of business people around Tarique Rahman, son of outgoing prime minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Such a move would be likely to provoke such fierce protests from the BNP that it could lead to full martial law.

To be seen to be even-handed in its treatment of Bangladesh's two feuding parties, the army might consider what is called the 'Musharraf option'. Just as General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, exiled Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of Pakistan's two largest political parties after his 1999 bloodless coup, so might martial law lead to the expulsion of Mrs Zia and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League.

"I don't discount the possibility that the generals ask the two ladies to take a holiday," one Awami League leader said. "Pakistan is certainly a model that could be followed here, even if they have far deeper grass-roots support than Benazir and Nawaz."

If the military decided to go after corruption in the former ruling party, they would have to go after the other party too, he said.

Either way, western diplomats view the emergence of a political vacuum in the world's fourth most populous Muslim country with alarm. A nation of 140m people, Bangladesh has been a focus of international efforts to engage with "moderate Islam".

Few are convinced that decapitating the two main political parties will help arrest the inroads being made by Islamist parties and associated terrorist groups. #

The article was first published in the Financial Times, London on 16 January 2007