Friday, April 06, 2007

Are Bangladesh & Pakistan abandoning parliamentary democracy?

AATAAI GAZI MAHBUB

When the U.S. proclaims itself as a defender of democracy around the world, it should be borne in mind that two of its closest South Asian allies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, home to 280 million Muslims, have been subjected for many years to U.S.-backed military regimes, instead of democratic governance.

Pakistan is ruled by General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup on October 12, 1999, with currently no prospect for a genuinely democratic restoration. For its part, Bangladesh has been under martial law since Jan. 12, 2007, and eight prominent politicians were arrested on Feb. 4, 2007 amid allegations by the main opposition party, the Awami League, of corrupting the electoral system.

The last elected government, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), resigned on Oct. 28, 2006, and a caretaker government, formed by President Iajuddin Ahmed took over civilian power and set the date for national elections for Jan. 22, 2007.

The political parties then engaged in disputes, with the Islamic parties joining nationalist and secularist alliances and giving up their Islamic ideology with a view to gaining political leverage, and the 14-party alliance led by secularists and leftists stipulating an accord with an Islamist party, which, if voted back into power, would reform Islamic law.

In this context, the U.S. Ambassador and the U.K. High Commissioner to Bangladesh, having become active in the nation's political arena, did not accept the accord that established Islamic law (Shari'a) as the law of the land.

At this point, the caretaker government was rejected and a military regime, reportedly sponsored by the U.S. and U.K., took power. As a result, the term of the British High Commissioner was extended to 2008, and the U.S. Ambassador was promoted to become eligible for selection as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq for 2008.

After swearing in by President Ahmed on Jan. 12, 2007 as Chief Advisor to the caretaker government, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, backed by Bangladeshi security forces, launched a national anti-corruption drive, arresting more than a hundred prominent political figures, including Tareque Rahman, the son of ex-Prime Minister Ziaur Rahman, and banning all political activities.

The word in Bangladesh is that former prime minister and chair of the BNP, Begum Khaleda Zia, is now in protective custody and under unofficial house arrest. Although the Bangladeshi Army Chief of Staff, Lt. General Moeen U Ahmed, claimed he had no intention of taking power, his actions so far have belied this.

When the caretaker government took power, it announced that it would return authority to elected representatives after completing reforms of the political process and the electoral system, but it has yet to set a time line. On the other hand, Bangladesh, whose level of corruption has been perceived as the highest in the world from 2001 to 2004, as cited by Transparency International, which awarded it third place in 2006, has lately seen some of its democratic structures under assault during the current anti-corruption drive.

Jatiya (People's) Party Chair Anwar Hossain Monju recently announced his resignation from political life, reportedly under pressure from the caretaker government, and it is expected that more career politicians may follow his lead.

Bangladeshis are generally quite satisfied with the current government, especially when they witness the apprehension of political figures known to be corrupt -- thieves of the public good, mafia-style godfathers and recoverers of illegal lands and have praise for the anti-corruption initiative taken by the government.

Bangladesh's economy is performing better than usual. Foreign exchange reserves now exceed a record $US 4 billion. Remittances from abroad are also at record levels, with US$ 281,700,000 coming in during the first half of March, 2007. The value of exports increased by 22 percent.

The government tries to keep down the price of essential goods through the state-run trading agency, Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB).

For these reasons, in describing the culture of political corruption, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ahmed has said that for 36 years we have not realized the promises of independence at the hands of the politicians, and now the government tries to portray a "Golden" Bangladesh, which most print media believe to be a portent of coming military rule.

The nation's two major think tanks, the Center for Policy Dialogue, and Transparency International Bangladesh, which were established with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are now the main influences on government policy making.

The caretaker government planned to lessen the influence of Islam by reforms reportedly sponsored by Western powers and has taken some steps, which have had little effect. For example, they wanted to shift the weekly religious holiday from Friday to Sunday, which is a congregational prayer day for Muslims, but cancelled for fear of mass demonstrations. It is conducting a concerted action against an Islamist terror group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), born in the first year of the previous elected government (1998-2006).

It now plans to recognize secularist Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's first prime minister, who was killed in 1975 by a group of junior army officers, as a father of the nation.

In Bangladesh, military rulers have achieved popularity based on their deeds. In 1978, General Ziaur Rahman, founder of the BNP, emerged as strongman after a series of military coups. He became a popular leader (after carrying out a 19-point program of economic reform and transforming the government to a democratically elected, constitutional one). After his assassination in 1981 his BNP party ruled Bangladesh for two terms (1991-1996 and 2001-2006).

General Hussain Mohammed Ershad assumed power in 1982 and assumed the presidency a year later. He was in power until December 1990, and his Jatiya Party got around 30 of 300 seats in two previous parliamentary elections (in 1991 and 1996), and he is still a factor in Bangladeshi politics. The current army chief will also be popular across the country.

By the same token, Pakistanis have lived under General Pervez Musharraf for eight years and are said to be more content with the current regime than previous, elected civilian administrations. When Musharraf took control, he launched an anti-corruption drive in the political arena and divided Muslim League led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and filed corruption charges against many politicians, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, chair of the Pakistan People's Party, and her husband, known as "Mr. Ten Percent," for taking bribes.

According to Transparency International, Pakistani corruption is still perceived as one of the most pronounced in the world. Benazir Bhutto was twice elected prime minister (1988-1990, 1993-1996) but did not complete her term of office and was rejected amid allegations of corruption.

Similarly, Nawaz Sharif, who was also elected prime minister twice (1990-1993; 1997-1999) was unable to complete his term of office and was dismissed on charges of corruption.

Political corruption prepared the way for the advent of military rule. General Musharraf has contributed more to the development of his nation than have other, more democratic rulers. Pakistan's economy is doing very well now, and its rate of GDP growth is 8.6 percent. Per capita income is US$1,000, and the growing middle class amounts to 19 percent of the total population.
Freedom of the press isn't totally unheard of, and there have been as many as 157 daily newspapers in publication, in Urdu, English and regional languages, as well as 43 TV channels.

Government investment has attracted foreign capital in turn, and investment by Singapore, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates has invigorated Pakistan's economy and created many jobs. A study published in 2006 by the South Asian News Agency claimed that a majority of Pakistanis back military rule in the country.

Pakistani women are satisfied on the whole with the current regime, which is committed to their emancipation and the cancellation of the Hudood Ordinance, which was not in effect even from a modern lady like Benazir Bhutto.

For its part, the U.S. wants to keep Musharraf in power to control Islamists and Taliban adherents. As well as offering aid packages, the U.S. maintains relentless pressure on Pakistan to root out Islamists. Washington has already threatened to retract the $US300 million pledged to support counter-terrorism efforts contained in President Bush's 2008 budget request as well as the pledge announced by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher of $US750 million over the next five years for economic development in the tribal areas, if Musharraf fails to root out Islamist terrorism.

Shielding Islamist terrorism in conservative Pakistan might come more naturally to a military ruler than elected leaders, who must echo public sentiment. For this reason, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador said on Mar. 26, 2007, that Musharraf was not an autocratic leader, albeit military, and the comeback issue of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto was the domestic reflection of this, in which the U.S. would not interfere.

For five of its six decades, an army general has run Pakistan, and many more military officials (active and retired) have been installed in its high-ranking posts, as diplomat and bureaucrat, receiving material advantages. Although the entire Pakistani judicial system was paralyzed after the March 9 filing of presidential charges against Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Musharraf was able to manage, appointing as his right-hand man a non-Muslim chief justice.

It's been accepted that it will not be a problem for the Supreme Court to have a president for another term, starting in 2008. He has consolidated his power well, promoting, as his own men, 96 brigadiers to the rank of major general.

It might be of interest that Bangladesh was once the Bengali province of Pakistan (East Pakistan), obtaining its independence in 1971 at the sacrifice of 3 million lives, and that it now is ready to follow a military model similar to Pakistan's. #