Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bangladesh: moving towards or away from democracy?


POLITICS is suspended in Bangladesh. Since a state of emergency was announced at the start of 2007, all political activity has been banned, along with trade union activity, and with powers available to the military-backed caretaker government to censor the media, if it chooses to exercise them.

And yet, three months after the Bangladesh military encouraged the president to announce a state of emergency on January 11 (so cancelling general elections due on January), many of Bangladesh’s liberal commentators are broadly supportive of developments as is much of the wider public. Politics, so the argument goes, had become so corrupted, that the only route to revive real democracy in the country was to suspend the corrupted version of democracy for some time.

But the big unanswered question is whether, and how fast, Bangladesh will return to democratic rule, and whether a genuinely new uncorrupted democracy can be established.

The Corrupting of Political Life
For the last 16 years, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by its two main parties and their two leaders – the “two begums” – Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League (AL), and Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power from 2001 to autumn 2006. But the current state of emergency already appears to have spelt the end for these two leaders’ political roles, and possibly too for that of their parties.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of a Dhaka think tank – the Power and Participation Research Centre – argues that the electorate “emerging as a quiet force” has had enough of turbulent national politics: “If you looked at the discourse of the political parties, who created their own spokesmen in many different spheres, you would see the country as composed of two big blocs and a battle to death going on. But on January 11, we saw that this was not the case. There were the two parties with some supporters and the greater majority of the electorate did want competitive politics but not this extreme short-sightedness and corruption.” And he goes on: “there was a very strong and visible view of the electorate that whatwas happening was not in that way it set the ground for intervention by institutional actors like the armed forces.”

Other commentators emphasise the undermining of the very basics of democracy by the behaviour of the two parties. Leading barrister Kamal Hossain, who was involved in drafting Bangladesh’s democratic constitution, asks why the constitutional set-up did not work. Bluntly answering his own question, he says “because they were making party politics something you cannot believe. You do not expect that ‘winner takes all’ means literally all, including taking the police as your private militia, the civil service as party lackeys and using any law as pure patronage for party loyalists, with no other criterion for appointments but party loyalty.” For a democratic system to work, says Hossain: “A minimum political morality is necessary… you cannot just use political authority as patronage…or with absolute impunity.”

For Daily Star, current affairs editor, Syed Badrul Ahsan, inefficiency rather than corruption has been the bigger problem in Bangladesh politics during the 1990s. Of the most recent BNP government, he says: “From 2001 to October 2006, corruption seemed to become institutionalised at all levels down to the rural level, including the politicising of civil servants.”

Kamal Hossain calls the appointment, on October 29, 2006, of the president as leader – chief adviser – of the caretaker government (meant to take the country through to the January elections): “a civilian coup” and “ a comedy of the absurd”, since the caretaker government was meant to be politically neutral, while the president had been voted in by the BNP. And last autumn, explains Hossain, the BNP “suddenly produced an electoral register with 93 million voters, not 73 million as five years before…so it was palpably obvious it was a bogus list so any residue of confidence disappeared and the electoral commission lost all credibility.”

A State of Emergency
As violent street protests and strikes continued through 2006, the Awami League announced it would boycott the elections. The international community was also starting to express its concerns – on January 10, the European Union announced it would be withdrawing its election monitors and that the EU would re-assess the full range of its relations with Bangladesh if the elections went ahead.

Debapriya Bhattacharya, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladeshi think tank, says that: “a one-sided election on January 22 was about to be bulldozed through…we saw the results were predetermined and the outgoing government was going to give itself another five years and then hold on by other means.” He also admits that: “There was a fear that the army would be used by them [the BNP] to abet them in this usurping of power. But I think the army saw the light– and patriotism and a sense of self-preservation must have helped.”

Some observers see the hand of the US in developments – presumed to be worried at the instability and the potential growth in violent Islamist activities already visible since a bombing campaign in 2005. In the day or two before the state of emergency, the United Nations had apparently threatened to delist the Bangladeshi army from UN peacekeeping duties – a rather lucrative and prestigious occupation. More than one western observer suggests this was a trigger, or perhaps an excuse, for the army to push the president to call the state of emergency.

From January 11, the new military backed caretaker government started work under the leadership of former Bangladeshi central bank governor – and one time World Bank official – Fakhruddin Ahmed, together with 10 other “technocratic” cabinet appointees. In the subsequent three months, the government – and military – embarked on a major anti-corruption campaign, arresting around 1,00,000 people, including many senior party political figures, and other leading professional and official actors. Not least among these was the son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman, accused of major corruption, with many saying he effectively ran a parallel government.

Many leading Awami League figures have also been arrested. Sheikh Hasina was by the start of April on a “private” visit to the US with many speculating both whether she will come back and whether Khaleda Zia may also be “encouraged” to leave the country.

Journalist Badrul Ahsan thinks it is important for the political parties to restructure “and to get out of the grips of families and dynasties. If Sheikh Hasina does not come back then that will suggest maybe we are going in for some radical changes.” Departure of the “two begums” many say, would be a very positive signal. Commentators also emphasise that the focus on anti-corruption has been welcomed by the public. Ahsan says: “Dealing with corruption has struck a chord. So far people seem pretty satisfied.” He suggests that if people do not like the direction the country is going, their mood will get expressed: “Bengalis have a history of losing patience politically.”

Think tank director, Hossain Zillur Rahman makes a similar point: “If the current government goes very much against the electorate in certain policies, you would immediately see a transformation of the situation and you would see much less ease of action; there is a tacit endorsement at moment.” Debapriya Bhattacharya too thinks that those who say the public will become restless in three months “are indulging in wishful thinking”. He goes on: “The government is unelected but still very popular – it will have to renew its legitimacy everyday with good work and without big mistakes.”

Questions Remain
Even so, the rapid and aggressive move in the first three months to demolish thousands of illegal roadside and pavement businesses and slum homes, leaving people homeless and/or penniless, is seen by many as an excessive approach to anti-corruption and one hurting the poorest rather than those higher up the corruption change. And the hanging of six Islamist militants, at the end of March (convicted of a series of bombings that took place in 2005), while welcomed by many, was also criticised for the haste with which it was carried out and the failure to follow through on information the six have supposedly given to police of senior political and professional names involved in masterminding their activities.

Others also point to corruption in defence deals and question whether the military can really differentiate itself as not part of the corrupt previous system. Moreover, many admit there is an open question as to whether the military will withdraw from its current increasingly powerful political role as and when the caretaker government moves to restore democracy, or whether it will get a taste for political power, Pakistan-style.

Badrul Ahsan argues that: “The armed forces are doing a pretty good job, hopefully they will not come in but stand behind and support the government. There could be questions of army corruption but generally they are above the fray.” But according to an article in The Economist (April 7, 2006): “the distinction General Ahmed [head of the army] wants to draw between corrupt politicians and honest soldiers is bogus. Senior army officers say in private that corruption is institutionalised in the armed forces.” And Zillur Rahman admits that there can be downside risks too, despite his careful optimism: “In certain quarters there could be overambition or it could be taken in directions not in line with expectations. Those dangers are there.”

But Barrister Kamal Hossain suggests that: “It’s too early to have any real suspicions on those lines [of the army]…and I’ve a feeling that some of those trying to project these suspicions are from the old political parties.” But one Dhaka journalist takes another view: “The army is getting restless. And the current government cannot run this for another two years, with just 11 people...they are non-elected and very hesitant on some steps…and the army has got personal ambition.” He suggests that in the coming period there may be a national unity government, which could be a positive step: “Then we would have some consensus for what is going on and put some reins on the army.”

Next Steps
Whether the state of emergency continues to get such widespread support will depend, according to many, on key decisions andsignals in the next three to six months.

In terms of the anti-corruption drive, there is a strong sense not only that it must be seen through and people brought to justice but that it is also vital for it to follow transparent and due processes. At present, bail has been suspended for all those charged with criminal and anti-corruption offences. And there have been a number of deaths associated with security forces since January 11, while Human Rights Watch drew attention recently to the Bangladesh security forces past reputation for torture and extrajudicial killings.

So many will be watching internally and externally for the restoration and exercise of rights and civil liberties, and for a freeing up again of political and trade union activity, and for a lessening or absence of any implicit or explicit media censorship.

People are also waiting for a clear timetable, including a prospective date for when local and national elections will be held. While it is understood that it may take some time to produce credible new electoral lists – possibly with photo identification and identity cards – the risks of drift and of time passing in a democratic vacuum are also emphasised by some.

Zillur Rahman says a short-term road map is needed soon: “an idea of the calendar – is it two years for the reform period? And so [we need] a date by which competitive elections are expected to return.” But while some may live comfortably with the vague and delaying announcement, at the start of April, by the Bangladesh Chief Election Commissioner that even 18 months may be too soon to be ready for new elections, others do not want to see a long delay. Kamal Hossain thinks it vital to see in the next few months how purposefully the administration is going ahead with the restoration of the election process and machinery. “I do not want to project forward two years” says Hossain “the pressure should be there for everyone including ourselves.”

As well as concerns that the army may decide it likes political power, and even go down a “Musharraf route” in the months ahead, the other big question is whether and how the party political system can be effectively restructured. Some hope that with the ‘two begums’ out of the way, some renewal can begin. Some look to Nobel Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus’ new party as a way forward, though so far it has not taken off rapidly.

Zillur Rahman calls it a time of both opportunity and danger, saying that political actors know the direction needed, but the question is whether, how and to what extent reforms are carried through: “How politics will come back is a challenge to society at large, a challenge to political parties to reform themselves…and it’s a challenge to the current drivers, the caretaker government and the army, of finding how to move ahead. We are in an experimental stage and so outcomes are very open.” But he concludes: “The danger is if it loses direction – aimlessness – and that risk is there.”

Bangladesh is clearly at a political turning point. The first three months of the state of emergency have rested on considerable public support, not least due to relief at an end to strikes, violence and instability, along with the drive against corruption. But there are already some danger signals suggesting the road forward to renewed democracy may be bumpy indeed. Whether that road is at least seriously attempted or whether the military will attempt to go down another route entirely will become clear in the next few months. #

This article was first published in Economic & Political Weekly, April 14, 2007

Kirsty Hughes, former Eurocrat turned freelance writer, is traveling through South Asia over the next two months. A former Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and coordinator for the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), she writes a political travel blog while on her travels. See: