Sunday, May 18, 2008

Polling Bangladesh

BANGLADESH IS an impoverished majority-Muslim country with a recent history of moderate secular politics. Fortunately there's a chance it will stay that way, now that the caretaker government that seized power last year appears ready to move ahead with December elections.

In announcing the vote this week, the government was confirming a promise it made in July. The caretaker regime's self-stated raison d'etre is to clean up the corruption of the previous elected governments and put the country on a firmer democratic footing. And it has made some important progress.

Topping its list of accomplishments, the regime has finished purging the electoral rolls of phantom voters that may have numbered in the millions. Compiling an accurate list of voters in a country of 153.5 million people was no small feat, and an important step toward fair elections.

The regime also partially lifted its nationwide ban on indoor political meetings with fewer than 200 attendees; this follows an earlier move to lift the ban in the capital, Dhaka. The step allows parties to re-open their local offices and start plotting strategies for the election.

But it's still a long way from a free country. Bangladesh remains under emergency rule, and many forms of electioneering, such as outdoor political rallies, are still banned. The government may be reluctant to lift such measures for fear that it would allow parties to incite violence among their supporters or let corruption rear its head again.

Which highlights the caretaker government's major shortcoming all along: its failure to realize that lasting change can come only from within the political parties themselves. By locking up the leaders of the two major secular parties -- the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party -- the government angered the parties' bases and may actually have enhanced the leaders' power within their organizations. The ban on party meetings effectively shut down forums where reformers could have argued for less corruption.

As Bangladesh gets closer to its December polls, the caretaker government must decide what to do with the "two ladies," Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the BNP. The two women, both former prime ministers, are awaiting trial on fraud charges. Moving ahead with the trials would demonstrate that the government is committed to the rule of law and affording equal treatment to all.

It would also help reduce the risk that the major parties might boycott the December election if their leaders aren't released. It's in Bangladesh's best interest that they don't, especially since the alternative lies with fundamentalist Islamist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami.

Such parties are still an electorally insignificant force. But before the caretaker government took power, it had been learning how to punch above its weight by forming coalitions with the major parties to pick up cabinet appointments. If for no other reason, the caretaker government must take steps over the coming months to allow the major secular parties to organize themselves effectively.

Bangladesh was hardly a model of functional democracy before the caretaker government came to power, and it may be only marginally better come December. But only a popularly elected government can wield the moral authority to enact lasting change. With this week's announcement, Bangladesh is one welcome step closer. #

First published in The WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA, May 16, 2008