On Dec. 29, Bangladesh voters will cast their ballots in the nation's first general election in seven years. The polls have been a focal point of the country's politics ever since a military intervention in January 2007, which postponed scheduled elections in order to end escalating violence between followers of two rival political parties. In the interim, a caretaker regime of technocrats has set about trying to tackle Bangladesh's wretched record of corruption and reform its volatile electoral politics. Results have been mixed, but the government now looks ready to deliver on its promises for free and credible polls — an effort that's not going unnoticed. Earlier this month, U.S. Senator John McCain, the defeated Republican candidate for President, declared on a visit to Dhaka that "this has the possibility of being the fairest election, perhaps, in the entire world."
MUCH OF that optimism has to do with the efforts of the well-educated, mild-mannered bureaucrats running the caretaker government for the past 23 months. On Wednesday, the government announced that the state of emergency will be finally lifted on Dec. 17 so that parties can campaign and assemble freely. During its tenure, the government has taken to task the country's crony-state politics, strengthened regulatory bodies like the election and anti-corruption commissions, and documented and photographed the more than 80 million people eligible to vote in elections — a stunning feat in this vastly impoverished nation OF 150 million where many remain illiterate.
Still, others fear a more gloomy result this month: a return to the way things were before. The aborted election two years ago saw some 12 million fake names on the voter roll, which, among other allegations of fraud, led to disputes and running street battles between the country's two main political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The interim government rode into power on a tidal wave of popular anger and exasperation with the AL and the BNP and their demagogic, warring leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who ran these behemoth parties as their personal fiefs. Both Hasina and Zia were arrested and imprisoned, charged on various counts of graft and abuse of power. Some of their closest political allies were also convicted of corruption as the caretaker government vowed to shake things up in Dhaka.
But not all has gone the reformers' way. The two begums, as Hasina and Zia are known, still command huge swathes of support — and, after ceaseless political pressure from their cadres, both are now free from detention and contesting the upcoming polls. Initially, the caretaker government attempted to encourage prominent figures from civil society to form a "third way" to break from the country's two-party system. That project failed, as did efforts to weaken the begums' networks of patronage that assured their grip on power. After two years out in the cold, Hasina or Zia could very well snatch the reins again, and perhaps roll back the charges leveled against them and key allies.
Few desire a return to cronyism. "People don't want to see the kind of polarization, the dysfunctional government that they witnessed in the past," says Peter Manikas, director of Asia research for the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has sent a delegation to monitor the elections. Since the 1990s, Hasina and Zia have swapped rancorous terms in office, leaving legacies of divisiveness and a trail of scandals of alleged kickbacks and bribery. "There was a winner-take-all mentality," says Manikas.
This election, all candidates for the 300 parliamentary seats that are up for grabs have been made to submit answers to a 16-page questionnaire, detailing personal assets and business interests. Both the AL and BNP have been pressed to become more transparent and to allow greater levels of internal dissent so the party machinery revolves less around the cult-like stature of their leaders. The military, for its part, has deployed some 50,000 troops to safeguard voting stations and intends to suspend civilian mobile phone signals on election day, which it claims will make mob takeovers of polling booths and vote-rigging — both hallmarks of elections in the past — more difficult. According to a poll by the Daily Star, a leading Dhaka English language newspaper, 95% of Bangladeshis believe they can cast their ballot without coercion.
The cooperativeness of the nation's military, which has a long history of interrupting democracy in the country, has been a pleasant surprise. Just half a year ago, the international community and Dhaka's civil society looked at the armed forces, including army chief Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, with a degree of apprehension. During emergency rule, dissidents were arrested, journalists muzzled and political assembly was banned. A wing of the military intelligence was accused by prominent human rights groups of torturing activists. Moeen himself made troubling statements about the efficacy of democratic rule in a country as turbulent as Bangladesh. But as he has quieted down in recent months, fears that the caretaker government was a dictatorship in civilian clothing have subsided. "The best thing that [the army] has done," says Ali Riaz, chair of the department of politics and government at Illinois State University, "is reduce its visibility." As the two begums ready for their return to the limelight — a prospect few among the military brass would have stomached months ago — observers are confident that the election's results will be respected and accepted by the nation's soldiers.
Now it's up to Hasina and Zia to make the best of their second chance. Both are making a cantankerous go of it in the run-up to elections, including playing up threats to their lives. But there is hope that the aftermath of the polls may be less stormy. Hasina's AL look like the favorites at this point, and in recent weeks, have made the right noises about sharing power and pushing toward a more consensus-driven politics. One AL declaration suggested that the opposition — whoever it may be — retain certain prominent seats in parliament, such as that of the deputy speaker. "There needs to be a proper participatory parliament," says Riaz, of Illinois State University. "Democracy cannot function without a really vibrant and an effective opposition."
The need for a functional, democratic government could not be more urgent. Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40% of its population living on less than $1 a day, and its government must act effectively to deal with inflation and soaring food costs that are making life miserable for the rural poor and urban working classes. Now, experts warn, is not the time to be settling personal vendettas or consolidating power. "Bangladeshis, including me, hope that the [two begums] think with a larger vision, and strengthen institutions," says Riaz. "Then both should have a graceful exit from politics." #
First published in TIME magazine, December 12, 2008