Sunday, February 03, 2008

Will There Be Elections in Bangladesh This Year?

FARID BAKHT

The caretaker government claims it will hold elections before end 2008. However, the generals and their advisers will be worried about the outcome. All has not gone according to plan in the removal of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from the domestic political scene and the management of the economy has been dismal.


THIRTY MILLION mobile phone subscribers in Bangladesh recently received a text message from chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed with the message, "Let us build a terrorist- and corruption-free country". The caretaker government celebrated its first year in power on January 11. If we are to take the government at its word, it will oversee elections by December this year and then gracefully leave the scene early in 2009. At this juncture, very few people feel certain that this will turn out to be the case.

This is in contrast with the views of some western diplomats. After a meeting with the foreign affairs adviser, the US charge d'affaires recently said: "I am hopeful, I am confident and I am certain that elections will be held by the end of 2008". The British equivalent chimed in with similar comments. With growing disquiet over the number of arbitrary arrests, allegations of torture and restrictions on the media, the regime takes comfort from the unwavering support of its "development partners".

After the generals installed ex-World Bank official, Fakhruddin Ahmed, it became clear that they had a far wider agenda than merely preparing the country for elections. They followed a twin-track strategy: (i) emasculation of the main political parties; (ii) support for the creation of a new political party.

The new political party was to be allowed to grow into a national political force, offering a clean alternative to the discredited Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League. In "free and fair" elections, this new force would form a democratic government, allowing the army to step away from the spotlight, while providing the steel to ward off any challenge from armed political activists.

Fresh on the heels of winning the Nobel Prize, Muhammad Yunus, of micro-banking fame, launched a new party, Nagorik Shakti, or Citizens' Power. This group was allowed considerable freedom of manoeuvre at a time when the other parties were banned from political activities under the state of emergency. The main political parties were on the defensive as its leaders were placed under arrest, thus clearing the space for the emergence of a new party. The new party failed miserably as the people refused to take it seriously, despite adulatory media coverage and obvious western support. Ever since, the army has been scrambling for other options.

After much hesitation, the government, of dubious constitutional legitimacy, produced a "road map" to elections. Normally, a caretaker government supervises the election over a period of 90 days. The current one felt it needed 18 months to clean up the voter rolls and ensure that elections are held properly. With such a long time scale, the regime backed itself into a corner as it had to manage the country within this period.

Low Scores for Year One
Under the caretaker government, food prices have gone through the roof. The statistics of the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh show that prices for the majority of essential food items (rice, flour, milk, cooking oil, sugar, lentil, red chillies, onions and potato) have risen by anywhere between 26 per cent and 70 per cent under the current regime. A common variety of coarse rice which costs less than 9 takas (Tk) a kg a year ago is now selling for Tk 31 in the capital. Flour has climbed from Tk 26 to Tk 41.

The garment industry continues to remain in turmoil. In January, over a 100 workers were injured in clashes with police in Mirpur, in Dhaka and several factories had to shut down temporarily. The government blames this on a conspiracy. The investigating officer told journalists: "we are trying to unearth the mystery behind the sudden workers' unrest". The workers think there is no mystery. They cannot survive on low wages in the face of spiraling prices.

Foreign investment has plummeted by over 80 per cent. No decisions have been made regarding the proposals by the Tatas and Global Coal Management (formerly Asia Energy). In total, proposals worth $ 10 billion are awaiting decisions. With prominent businessmen on the run and a wait and see attitude among entrepreneurs, domestic investment declined by 36 per cent in the first half of 2007. No new power plants were brought on stream and the country embarrassingly suffered two complete blackouts.

A clash between students and an army unit in Dhaka University escalated into a national student revolt. Over 80,000 arrests were made. As a consequence, Dhaka and Rajshahi university professors are in jail. Students and lecturers are wearing black armbands, eerily reminiscent of protests in 1970 against the Pakistani military.

For non-performance, three out of the 10 advisers were forced to quit office in January, including the reviled Moinul Hossain (media tycoon and erstwhile law adviser). The regime has surprised even its enemies with its inability to steer the ship to calmer waters. The unspoken contract was for better and more efficient government at the expense of political rights, at least in the short run. That has clearly not been the case.

What Is in Store in Year Two?
Much depends on the trials of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. One option is for a revival of the "minus two" formula where the two leaders are encouraged to leave the country for exile, rather than serve a jail term. Having failed in 2007, the chances are low this year too. Both know that leaving the country would affect their political fortunes and they also cannot trust their lieutenants. Already, the BNP has split. One faction led by the ex-finance minister, Saifur Rahman, is colluding with the regime.

By comparison, the Awami League is maintaining cohesion and demanding early elections, which they threaten to boycott unless Hasina is freed. While in court to face corruption charges, Hasina made a defiant statement: "The Awami League must gear up for early national polls as there is no alternative to elections to save the country from dictatorship… It is time (that) the Awami League launched a movement".

The generals still seem to want to divide and rule, or at least ultimately call the shots from behind. Officially, the soldiers are denying any such agenda. In a television interview earlier this month, the army chief Moeen U Ahmed said that he had no "wish" to be the country's president. "In this age, the world does not welcome martial law… It is even possible to hold the voting well ahead of December". The fact that he is regularly asked about his intentions suggest that the public is not convinced.

The options boil down to four:
(i) Hold elections this winter: With a split BNP, and no sign of either faction resurrecting the alliance with a so-far unscathed Jamaat, the likelihood would be for an Awami League victory. Many would then say: back to square one. Tagged to that would be a reconfiguration of a broadly Islamic opposition, with all that entails.

(ii) Form a national unity government: To sustain credibility, this would necessitate the inclusion of the Awami League and BNP. While a grand alliance may work in Germany, it is difficult to see how such a group of bickering politicians could run the economy and provide stability. This might work (for a time) if Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina were ejected, and the army were to hold the ring. Without the participation of the two parties, no one would buy the concept and it would become a broader version of the present interim administration.

(iii) Fakhruddin Ahmed keeps the show rolling: Barring an incredible turnaround in fortunes and performance, the chances of this happening are almost zero. The public would expect an election to be called or another form of administration. The status quo is unstable and would fly in the face of all the commitments made.

(iv) Full military take-over: The military could only resort to this if all else failed, and they are afraid of repercussions and witch-hunts. Or there is some sort of enduring threat, such as an armed insurrection. This could be on the lines of the Islamic (JMB) bombing campaign of 2005-06. There is no sign of this for now, with the leaders executed, the remnants have not regrouped. Media reports occasionally indicate arrests and capture of bomb equipment. A complete military coup is still unlikely and probably not the preferred option.

The generals will be crossing their fingers and hoping that the country will be lucky and avoid more natural disasters. They will also hope that food prices decline. They are banking on a bumper boro (winter) crop, to make up for the shortfall in the aman crop. The chief adviser has directed that the Power Development Board supply electricity for 250,000 electric pumps and diesel for 1.1 million diesel pumps, even at the expense of urban consumers. He, along with the generals, finally realise that agriculture holds the key.

Furthermore, they will have to secure business support, which means back-peddling on the corruption drive against entrepreneurs. Similarly, they will have to release the academics, to placate the restive students.

Lessons from Thailand
The Bangkok cycle of military intervention is ahead of Dhaka's. In the parlance of Bangladeshi politics, the Thai junta followed a "minus one" policy – getting rid of Thaksin Shinawatra, when he was prime minister. They have recently had an election, with the result that Thaksin's party is on its way back to power. The generals cannot be overjoyed with the outcome.

This will be going through the minds of the Bengali generals. So far the "minus two" policy has not even got off the ground. The generals have also gone further than the Thai junta in their hot pursuit of politicians and businessmen. If elections are held this winter in Bangladesh, who is to say which set of vengeful politicians will be back at the helm?

First published in Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, India, January 26, 2008

Farid Bakht (faridbakht@yahoo.com) is a commentator on South Asian affairs