Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bangladesh State Emergency An Opportunity

PROFESSOR MAHFUZ R. CHOWDHURY

FROM a political point of view, Bangladesh is currently undergoing dramatic change. The present caretaker government, which came to power on January 12, 2007 with the backing of the army after a declaration of emergency, was quickly perceived to have saved the country from the grave consequences of hostilities between the country’s two major political parties. Those hostilities had driven the country of over 140 million people almost to the brink of anarchy. During the two months prior to the takeover, the country had experienced unending riots and widespread demonstrations in which more than 60 people lost their lives, millions of dollars in property was damaged, and the economic activities in the country came to a squealing halt.

After coming to power, the present government not only brought an end to the crisis, it promptly undertook a number of key initiatives that the country had failed to achieve during the 36 years since it gained independence. These initiatives include the badly needed restructuring of the anti-corruption commission, reorganization of the election commission, and establishment of the rule of law by making the judiciary free from the executive branch. Having initiated or achieved such long awaited and cherished measures, the government earned praise from its citizens and the world. By every account, the government has so far done an outstanding job in accomplishing the main objectives it had set out to accomplish, though not without glitches.

One of the critical problems that Bangladesh had faced was massive corruption at every level of government. The world is aware that Transparency International had ranked Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world for five consecutive years since 2000. Having assumed authority, the caretaker government unleashed a massive campaign to confront corruption head on. It soon locked up a number of influential state ministers, members of parliament, top businessmen, and other high officials, who were known to have extorted enormous amount of money and land, and to have even expropriated vast amounts of relief materials intended for the poor. The government also succeeded in putting the son of the former Prime Minister, the alleged ring leader of the country’s organized crime, in jail. The government traced a huge amount of money that had been laundered through foreign banks, especially shocking to the world. Just imagine, while the country was supposedly receiving foreign aid to bolster its economy, its officials were engaged in illegally transferring money out of the country! Estimates of such laundered money are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The other contentious issue was how to set up an impartial and fair election process in the country. This challenge had earlier led the two leading parties to settle for a caretaker government that would oversee a period of three months leading up to an election. Yet this unprecedented deal failed to bring fairness to the political process because the party previously in power found ingenious ways to leave its many cronies in power to manipulate elections. This time, when the initial caretaker government’s decision to hold election under questionable circumstances led to a crisis, the President was obliged to declare an emergency and install a truly independent caretaker government.

Immediately after taking power, the present government pledged to bring necessary reforms to end the prevailing system in which politics is influenced not by the free will of the people, but by the manipulation of elections through money and muscle. The two major political parties, Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, remained the country’s key players in the political arena. Following the assassination of their former paramount leaders, the daughter and wife of those leaders were inducted to these parties’ leadership positions in order to contain feuding among party elders. Eventually, both women assumed autocratic power within their parties, and both also held state power at one time or another. But neither one’s administrative record is free from corruption or manipulation of political events. In fact, the present crisis in the country was indisputably caused by these two politically inept women. It is for this very reason that many believe that true political reforms would not be possible while they remained at the helm of their parties. Subscribing to such a theory, the current caretaker government seems to have taken an impromptu decision to exile them, thinking that it might be easier to send them abroad than to prosecute them for their alleged crimes. In the face of outside pressure, the government subsequently reversed its decision to exile them. But serious controversy over the future political roles of these two women lingers.

Contrary to popular belief, Bangladesh is a resource-rich country, and has remained so even after years of exploitation by a number of foreign powers, including the Mughals, the British, and the Pakistanis. The country is filled with rich coal and gas reserves, and it also has a competent workforce. After gaining independence, it has stayed poor and has failed to reach its potential mainly because of its corrupt political system. Even under such trying circumstances the country has achieved 5 percent annual economic growth during the past decade. This is precisely why a great sense of hope has prevailed in the country following the declaration of the state of emergency and the formation of the present caretaker government. Except for a small section of people who had plundered state wealth and are now facing justice, the general public is pleased with the turn of events in the country. Intellectuals both at home and abroad have described the current situation as a new opportunity for the country to cleanse its political system so that it can move forward.

Currently, under emergency rule all political activities in the country are banned, but pressure especially from outside is mounting to lift this ban, and at the same time to schedule a new election as soon as possible. The government has pledged to schedule the election by the end of 2008, or soon after election reform is completed. The country’s intellectuals and constitutional experts have supported the decision.

But the leaders of the two influential parties see this delay as a great danger for them, because the present government continues to investigate their past misdeeds. Their clamor for early election is not with the country’s best interests at heart, but in order to save themselves from ongoing investigations and further embarrassments. To bring progress to Bangladesh, the need for a fair election could not be overemphasized. But pressuring the government to schedule an early election without necessary election reform might bring more harm than good. Considering the ominous circumstances under which the present caretaker government was brought to power, the world should dismiss the idea of a snap election. An election without electoral reform would simply reestablish the old system where money and muscle once ruled. Such a system should neither be desirable nor acceptable to the democratic world.

Bangladesh is clearly at a crossroads. The world has a great responsibility to help it to choose and stay on the right track, and not create obstacles for its reform. If the country fails to move forward, the future of the country will be greatly jeopardized. The present caretaker government can use help and guidance in setting up proper reforms leading to a fair election, in bringing corrupt former officials to justice, and in recovering illegally laundered money from abroad. Help in these areas would go a long way toward establishing democracy and putting the country on the path to prosperity. A prosperous Bangladesh would be beneficial to the world. #

This article was published in American Chronicle, on May 8, 2007

Professor Chowdhury teaches Economics at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, USA. He has wide ranging experience in international business and commerce, and has written on failure of communism and problem with developing countries. He was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh and has written extensively on his home country. His book, "Economic Exploitation of Bangladesh", addresses the economics of developing countries, using Bangladesh as a case study. He could be reached Mahfuz.Chowdhury@liu.edu