Saturday, March 10, 2007

One Begum down. another cornered

The generals show who's boss
TWENTY-SIX years after the assassination of her husband, General Ziaur Rahman, a former president of Bangladesh, the political career of Khaleda Zia, prime minister until last October, has come to an end. Bangladesh's army, the moving force behind a state of emergency declared in January, is finally baring its teeth. As it promised from the outset, but at first failed to prove, its anti-corruption drive will spare no one. On March 8th it arrested Tarique Rahman, Mrs Zia's son. In recent weeks there were rumours that Mrs Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and one of the “two begums” who have dominated politics, had been trying to negotiate a graceful exit for herself and her two sons. The generals, it now seems, are not open for negotiation.

For good measure, it searched the house of the other begum, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also a former prime minister and leader of the other big party, the Awami League. But no arrests were made. The military-backed government also published a list of 50 top businessmen and leaders from the two big parties who it wants to arrest. Perhaps most important, the administration has announced plans to create a National Security Council—in effect an admission by the army's top brass that it has become impossible to govern the country from behind the curtain any longer.
Mr Rahman, a senior BNP official, and long Mrs Zia's presumed successor, had in recent years become the symbol in the public mind of kleptocratic rule and the politics of violent retaliation. Most Bangladeshis preferred not to mention him by name, out of fear. Instead they dubbed him “Mr Ten Per Cent”—a reference to his alleged cut on almost any deal done by his mother's government. But the culture of fear is waning. The BNP, the party his mother inherited from his father, is desperately fighting for its survival.

Fear of a possible backlash by BNP loyalists is one reason behind the creation of a National Security Council. It suggests that the army feels that the fiction it has been maintaining—that it is merely helping a civilian administration hold elections—has become unsustainable. The council will include the chiefs of the three branches of the armed forces. To give the arrangement a more acceptable gloss, it will also bring in civilians, and will be led by the head of the interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official.

The “advisers” who have made up Mr Ahmed's administration, which is now in effect defunct, have been hopelessly overstretched. Some have responsibility for no fewer than five ministries. The new council gives the army a formal mechanism for bossing the administration it installed in January. It replaced a supposedly neutral caretaker government that, under Bangladesh's fraught two-party system, normally takes over for three months at the end of a government's five-year term to oversee fair elections. This one had provoked violent protests from League supporters, who accused it of planning to rig the election due in January. The state of emergency meant the poll has been postponed indefinitely.

Dhaka is now in an excited state. The military-backed administration still enjoys widespread public support from a public disillusioned with the corruption and eternal feuding of the big parties. But hopes of a Bangladeshi “velvet revolution”, facilitated by the military, are beginning to fade as the realisation dawns that engineering the army's return to the barracks will be difficult. With most of the former political class now behind bars, the withdrawal of the army from politics and a lifting of the state of emergency would carry the risk of retribution. A total of about 30 former ministers, politicians, businessmen and civil servants are already in prison on charges of corruption. This week a court extended for a further month their detention without charge.

The current army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed, is likely to be safe from retribution at least until his scheduled retirement in June 2008. The summer monsoon pushes the local elections—likely to be held before parliamentary elections as a test—to the final quarter of 2008 and national polls into early 2009. With the BNP decapitated, there is a political void. One candidate to fill it is Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel-prize-winning microcredit pioneer. But his attempt to build a new political force probably needs the army's backing, which Mr Yunus will want to avoid. Meanwhile, Western governments and donors are happy with emergency arrangements. Like many Bangladeshis, they say a period of 12-18 months would be acceptable. Both foreigners and Bangladeshis might have to learn a little more patience. #

Published from The Economist magazine, Mar 8th 2007