Saturday, September 08, 2007



IT is up to the leaders of civil society to speak out and continue to speak out to ensure that the caretaker government does not lose focus again and does not let an over-ambitious agenda detract from its original objectives

Last week, the situation in Bangladesh appeared to be falling apart. There was a scuffle between some soldiers and some students on the always-volatile Dhaka University campus, and within minutes it seemed the trouble had spread to other universities and to the streets. There is some suspicion that the problems were not spontaneous.

Swift government action to impose a curfew for a few days seems to have cooled the situation down. The question is whether what happened last week serves as a wake-up call to this military/civilian regime, and to the usually dynamic Bangladeshi civil society (which has been unusually silent) or whether it is a harbinger of worse things to come.

I think it is clear that one of the problems has been the lack of a political safety valve so far during the tenure of this un-elected government. Many observers, including this writer, have advocated lifting the ban on political activity, at least partially. The first step could be permitting indoor political meetings, which inter alia, would permit the Election Commission to begin consulting the parties on the changes in electoral rules and the party and political reform it has in mind.

Among the first items of business in these consultations is the voters' list. After months, I have still seen no indication that the election commission will be able to complete the list with photos that it has so ambitiously set as its target. The aim was to have this ready by the end of 2008, but recent headlines screamed that the 16,000 laptop computers needed for this operation would not be available by then. Even if they were, I wonder if the 16,000 operators that would be needed can be trained in time.

I have argued that a voters' list with photos is a laudable longer-run objective, but insistence on such a list for the next election is a case of complicating the present by projecting from the past. A photo voters' list would have been useful in the national elections of 1996 and 2001, and was thought necessary by the opposition in the 2006 run-up to the aborted 2007 election because it was the clearly skewed list that was a main bone of contention.

However, it seems to me that almost all parties could agree that an election conducted under this caretaker government is virtually certain to be free and fair. Why not get the parties to agree to a list without photos for this election, with the idea that such a simple list could be completed more quickly and lead to an earlier election than thought possible when this caretaker government took over.

The dialogue between the government and the parties must also get down to brass-tacks on party reform and leadership. Both are necessary if what comes out of this interim period is to lead to a sustainable democratic system. It will not be easy to get agreement on changed leadership in the two major parties, let alone their reform, but the promise of earlier elections may prove an attractive incentive.

In fact, that is part of the problem. In addition to the lack of a forum for dialogue between the caretaker government and the public and political parties, there is the perception of fumbling and halting progress towards an election that would turn things back over to an elected civilian government. That perception is not all wrong. Progress has been halting, in part because the caretaker government's agenda has been too ambitious. A photo voters' list is one example of that; there are several others.

Progress has also been halting, in part, because of problems that the government cannot completely control and that often derive from global or regional trends. These problems take time and energy from the main tasks of the caretaker government, time and energy not available in infinite amounts in a cabinet limited in size by the constitution and, to some extent perhaps, wedded to outdated philosophies. The economy is sagging and inflation is increasing. The primary response should be to protect the poor through income transfers, not price controls, which just impact more negatively on the economy.

I hope that the events of the past ten days have also been a wake-up call to the leaders of Bangladesh civil society. There are a number of outstanding individuals who I know are well regarded by the military and the civil sides of this interim regime - perceived as objective, neutral, and supportive. It is time they spoke out clearly, and publicly if possible, about the need for the government to increase its capacity and focus its attention on the immediate tasks it set out in January to accomplish: a free and fair election as soon as technically possible; a change in the political culture through democratising the parties and agreeing with them to a set of regles du jeu (the rules of the game) that the politicians should live by.

I do not omit the pursuit of the corrupt politicians and allied businessmen, but I have never been convinced that the Anti-Corruption Commission would be able to more than begin its work by the time an election should be held. Just the threat that it poses, under its dynamic and straightforward Chairman right now, would be a major disincentive to attempts to corrupt the next election. What is important is that this election brings on an honest government that will pursue the anti-corruption campaign with determination and neutrality throughout the next decade.

It is up to the leaders of civil society to speak out and continue to speak out to ensure that the caretaker government does not lose focus again and does not let an over-ambitious agenda detract from its original objectives. It is another case of "the best is the enemy of the good". Of all those who have a stake in the success of the experiment underway in Bangladesh, it is the civil society of the country that has the largest stake. #

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. His columns reflect his personal views and not those of the United States Government This article first appeared in Daily Times, Pakistan, September 05, 2007