International Crisis Group Asia Report
The caretaker government, along with the international community, must take credible steps to restore democracy to
Executive Summary and Recommendations
BANGLADESH IS under military rule again for the third time in as many decades. Although the caretaker government (CTG) insists its plans to stamp out corruption and hold general elections by December 2008 are on track, its achievements have been patchy, and relations with the major political parties are acrimonious. Efforts to sideline the two prime ministers of the post-1990 democratic period have faltered (though both are in jail), and the government has become bogged down in its attempts to clean up corruption and reshape democratic politics. Even if elections are held on schedule, there is no guarantee reforms will be sustainable. If they are delayed, the risk of confrontation between the parties and the army-backed government will grow. There is an urgent need for all sides to negotiate a peaceful and sustainable return to democracy.
The army’s intervention on 11 January 2007 was widely welcomed for preventing a slide into extensive violence. Activists of the opposition Awami League had stepped up street protests against efforts by the outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government to rig elections. Clashes had led to some 50 deaths by the end of 2006, and there was no compromise in sight. The CTG, headed by technocrats but controlled by the military, quickly ended street violence and raised hopes of political change, promising to tackle the corruption, nepotism and infighting that had crippled fifteen years of elected governments. It used wide-ranging emergency powers and argued that the exceptional situation, not envisaged by the constitution, legitimised its extended tenure and ambitious program. Its goals attracted support from key international backers.
Some progress is evident. The creation of a new electoral roll, with photographic voter identity cards, is underway; the government has begun to separate the judiciary from the executive; and it has reconstituted the Election and Public Service Commissions – essential preliminaries to more extensive reforms of the electoral system and the bureaucracy. Its anti-corruption drive has targeted powerful politicians and their protégés. Debilitating hartals (general strikes) that sapped business confidence and disrupted daily life have been banned.
However, despite some continued support from civil society and the international community, the government’s honeymoon is over. There is now fear the government is undermining the very democratic institutions it set out to rescue. In its first year in power, the government made some 440,000 arrests ostensibly linked to its anti-corruption drive, creating a climate of fear in the country. Its poor handling of the economy and natural disasters has aggravated underlying scepticism over its real intentions. The continued state of emergency and efforts to undermine popular politicians and split their parties have left many questioning its sincerity. Former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina weathered clumsy attempts to force them into exile. They are both under detention facing corruption charges but still dominate their parties, and their popularity may get a boost if their prosecutions are seen as unfair.
The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the military intelligence agency and the engine of military government, has been careful to avoid being front and centre, but serving and retired officers have been placed in critical positions, from the Election Commission to the National Coordination Committee heading the anti-corruption drive. Senior officers assert that the army has no desire to get its hands dirty and would rather stay out of politics altogether. They remember the messy collapse of past military regimes and are concerned about their and their army’s international reputation and peacekeeping role. Still, there have been persistent signals that the army would like to institutionalise a degree of continuing influence after elections. In any event, it will have difficulty extricating itself from politics with its prestige intact, unless it can negotiate a graceful exit strategy with the parties.
There is an immediate need for dialogue between the government and the main parties. Any viable roadmap for elections and a smooth return to democracy has to be agreed by all major actors. The first step must be to address mistrust between the two sides, as well as the acrimonious relations between the Awami League and BNP. Ideally, a new consensus would not only cover how to hold elections but also develop commitments on post-election behaviour (including sustaining institutional reforms and anti-corruption measures) and democratic functioning (including safeguarding human rights and political pluralism).
Failure to negotiate would invite confrontation. Student unrest in August 2007 showed how quickly frustration with military rule can boil over. Two floods, a devastating cyclone and rising food prices have left many Bangladeshis hungry and the CTG struggling to assert that the politicians it imprisoned on corruption charges would be equally unable to handle the food crisis. If the government cannot bring the politicians along to help it cope with soaring food prices, the parties are likely to channel popular discontent into street protests. This would carry the immediate risk of violent clashes; it would also increase the advantage militant Islamists are already quietly taking from the situation.
International actors who have too placidly accepted the government’s rationale and supported its agenda should recognise that the priority is to maintain pressure for timely and credible elections. They should also be prepared to act as a possible guarantor to facilitate a delicate transfer of power and to support a longer-term program of sustainable reforms to put the country’s democracy back on track.
To the Caretaker Government (CTG) and the Military:
1. Lift the state of emergency, including complete cancellation of the Emergency Power Rules (EPR), at least two months ahead of any elections to create conditions conducive for free and fair contests.
2. Carry out the following steps ahead of elections:
(a) immediately rescind the emergency ban on all political party activity and freedom of association, as well as press restrictions, and repeal Section 16(2) of the EPR granting immunity from prosecution to the Joint Forces;
b) continue good faith efforts to adhere to the election roadmap for parliamentary elections by the end of 2008 at the latest, by setting a specific election date and keeping in mind Islamic holidays to ensure full participation;
(c) begin discussions immediately with the main political parties on core political issues not addressed in talks between those parties and the Election Commission;
(d) refrain from using coercive measures to induce and expedite political party reforms and allow sufficient time for party leaders to build support for internal reforms at all levels; and
(e) desist from anti-corruption arrests without warrants or sufficient evidence.
3. Disavow the “minus two” policy as part of the political reform process, and in regard to the trials of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia:
(a) refrain from interfering and allow them to be held in open court;
(b) conduct them before the general election;
(c) ensure they are speedy and verdicts are delivered in time for the accused to stand for late 2008 parliamentary election if found innocent; and
(d) respect the High Court or High Court of Appeal’s verdicts.
4. Identify and encourage non-partisan national observers to monitor all elections outlined in the roadmap and invite international election observation missions to monitor elections, in consultation with the parties.
To the Parties:
5. Demonstrate a willingness to reciprocate goodwill gestures by the CTG (such as removal of the ban on party activity) by promoting internal party democracy, rejecting those convicted in corruption cases as candidates and forging consensus on an election code of conduct.
6. Promote internal party democracy by:
(a) holding regular elections for all leadership posts at all party levels;
(b) rewarding committed and effective party workers with greater opportunities to rise through the ranks, including running for office, gaining access to funds and other resources for their candidacies and winning promotions to important committees;
(c) selecting candidates to stand for elections who enjoy the confidence of their local party workers; and
(d) determining a quota, in consultation with the Election Commission, for ensuring women’s representation at all levels.
7. Do not boycott the elections, and if they are deemed free and fair by credible observers, accept the results.
To Both the CTG and the Parties:
8. Seek to ensure a smooth transition to democracy and a credible parliamentary election by December 2008 by entering into a dialogue, with a clearly defined agenda from the start, that aims broadly to:
(a) achieve a common minimum commitment on sustaining institutional reforms such as the independence of the judiciary, maintaining a non-partisan public service commission and refraining from political interference in police and army promotions and assignments;
(b) agree on how to ratify actions of the CTG, whether by approving ordinances (which might mean amending current ordinances to make them more acceptable), by a constitutional amendment or by other means;
(c) ensure a smooth transfer of power after elections, with safeguards against retaliatory prosecutions, demotions or transfers of CTG officials and military officers for administering routine ministerial, government and security functions and formulating and implementing institutional reforms such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission, judicial and other reforms necessary for strengthening democratic functioning, but without foregoing the state’s responsibility under domestic and international law to investigate and prosecute civilian and military officials who have ordered, condoned or directly participated in human rights abuses to enforce the state of emergency;
(d) consider mechanisms for institutionalising pluralism and empowering opposition voices in parliament such as creating a bicameral legislature; repealing Article 70 of the constitution, which imposes rigid party discipline in the parliament; and ensuring meaningful bipartisan participation in parliamentary committees and working groups; and
(e) intensify efforts by the next government to: reduce space for radicalism, cooperate in dismantling terrorist groups and tackle any linkages between violent extremists and state institutions, political parties and politicians, and members of the business community, as well as between violent extremists and organised crime or other sources of domestic and international funding.
9. Include in any agreement a common reiteration of commitment to all fundamental rights, including concrete promises for action in areas such as extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal detention, and protection of minority rights, women’s rights and refugee rights.
10. Hold, upon conclusion of the talks, several roundtable discussions with a wide range of civil society organisations in the six division capitals so as to forge a broader national charter for post-election governance and respect for human rights.
To the International Community, especially Australia, Canada, the European Union, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, UN and U.S.:
11. Maintain pressure on the CTG to hold timely and credible elections, as well as technical support for the electoral process and unity in public and private messages to the main political actors.
12. Consider official visits to Bangladesh in the upcoming months at foreign minister or under-secretary-general level to remind the CTG that its legitimacy depends on meeting its elections target, and the army that its international reputation rests on assisting a smooth transfer of power and remaining outside of politics, and ensure that senior visitors also meet with leaders of the main political parties.
13. Encourage strongly an inclusive dialogue both between the CTG and parties and among the parties, stand ready to assist the resumption of talks if they breakdown and give public support to any agreement reached.
14. Support non-partisan national election monitoring mechanisms, prepare to send electoral observation missions and agree on benchmarks for credible elections, which likely should include:
(a) participation by all major parties;
(b) lifting of the state of emergency at least two months before the elections, including the end of all restrictions on fundamental rights;
(c) minimal pre-election violence; and
(d) minimal candidate and voter intimidation by either the CTG, the military or the parties.
15. Emphasise to the CTG its responsibility to uphold both domestic and international human rights standards, including investigating and holding to account past and present human rights abuses, particularly those committed by the security services, and be prepared to offer technical and financial assistance to Bangladesh’s human rights commission.
Dhaka/Brussels, 28 April 2008
For full report of the International Crisis Group on Bangladesh click: http://www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/asia/south_asia/151_restoring_democracy_in_bangladesh.pdf