Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The advisers' regime in Bangladesh

Photo: Bangladesh military-installed caretaker government chief adviser Dr Fakruddin Ahmed, former the World Bank official and civil service bureaucrat - pre-occupied with damage control

SINCE A military-controlled interim government assumed power in Dhaka in January 2007 – suspending elections, announcing a jihad on corruption, arresting former prime ministers, and promising to right all that is wrong – a little-known Chinese proverb has entered the Bangla street lexicon. Riding a tiger is easy, the danger is in getting off strikes many as tailor-made to describe the unenviable plight that Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed and his colleagues find themselves in today, some 20 months after assuming power.

In late July, local elections to a handful of city corporations and municipalities (in Sylhet, Khulna, Barisal and Rajshahi), held under the ongoing state of emergency, may have confirmed the regime’s deepest fears. Last year, the Chief Election Commissioner, A T M Shamsul Huda, had time and again told the media that the emergency would have to be lifted before free and fair national polls could take place. In the wake of July’s local elections, however, he seems to have quickly changed his mind.

Though candidates in the local polls were not allowed to contest under the banner of the mainstream political parties, it was almost exclusively candidates with known party affiliations who won. Since the interim government came to power last year, a pro-government media blitzkrieg that blamed all of the coutnry’s ills on the politicians had sought to ensure that the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stood thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the public. As undeserving as they are of public favour, these polls have shown that the people of Bangladesh still side with their candidates, despite the fact that almost everyone will agree that the party top brass is corrupt and autocratic.

This failure to transform politics could not have been brought home with greater impact than through a recent remark by CEC Huda, who publicly admitted to the interim government’s failure to bring “honest and capable candidates” to stand in the recently held elections. Huda’s comment made all the more of a splash due to the fact that this tagline of honesty and competence in politics has been regularly touted by the interim government as one of its strongest selling points.

Meanwhile, even the emergent elite, one of the strongest constituencies for this military-controlled government and its ambitious plan to ‘democratise’ the country, there is increasing disillusionment. There is no escaping the proof on the ground that all is not right. The Berlin-based Transparency International, which has ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world for three years in a row, recently ruled that corruption had not abated under Bangladesh’s new uniformed rulers.

Exit and indemnity
In fact, most political observers believe that the coin dropped a long while ago. Having spent the first year arbitrarily arresting top politicos and businessmen for corruption (their confessions often extracted after torture, methods rendered inscrutable by the state of emergency), the government seemed to have changed its tack as the need for a safe landing became more and more pressing. The ‘minus-two’ formula envisioned exiling the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, along the lines of Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan. Now, this seems to have been abandoned.

In June, Sheikh Hasina (whose supporters largely swept the July polls) was suddenly released on ‘parole’ for ‘medical treatment’. This came after the Awami League leader had spent a year in detention on a slew of corruption charges, with bail being consistently denied through the use of emergency powers. Three months on, the interim cabinet seems to be devoting an inordinate amount of rhetoric to reassure the BNP that its leader, Khaleda Zia, is also in the process of being released from detention. In fact, it is emerging as a source of embarrassment for the interim regime that she has been repeatedly quoted in the press as refusing to accept any form of exile, and demanding instead that her imprisonment run its normal legal course, rather than having an expedited release. If she does not want to be released, people are asking themselves, and yet if she is still as corrupt as the government has been saying, then why does the chief adviser need to reassure the BNP of her imminent release? The waters get murkier as the Awami League mounts pressure on the goverment to release arch-rival Khaleda -- to prevent her from emerging as a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, but mostly due to the fact that her continued incarceration makes Hasina seem too eager to compromise with the cantonment.

It certainly does not help the government’s case that ordinary Bangladeshis know that, historically, such developments have always been the result of dirty deals between the powerful and those in power. There is already talk on the street that the results of the national elections, now scheduled for December, could be determined by whichever party offers the advisers a safer ‘exit route’, as well as indemnity through a desperately necessary constitutional amendment. Bangladesh’s politicians, warts and all, may yet hold the key to ending this latest bout of military rule. #

Commentary published in HIMAL Magazine, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2008