Monday, February 02, 2009

Bangladesh election reviewed by American scholars

The U.S. Bangladesh Advisory Council (USBAC), and Johns Hopkins University-SAIS South Asia Studies, cosponsored a panel discussion today on “Bangladesh Elections and Beyond: Democracy, Security and Development”. The largely attended event was participated by students, academics, government officials, NGOs, diplomats and others interested in Bangladesh.

The panelists included SAIS PhD student and International Republican Institute’s 2008 Election Observer Joshua White, Advisor to the Honorable Sheikh Hasina, Mr. Sajeeb Wazed, USBAC Board Member Dr. Imtiaz Habib, and National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) 2008 Election Observer Peter Manikas. Dr. Walter Andersen, Director-SAIS moderated the event. Mr. Shabbir Ahmed, Chair, and Ms. Shamarukh Mohiuddin, Executive Director of USBAC welcomed the participants and briefly outlined USBAC’s mission- including improving US Bangladesh relations through public policy.

Dr. Andersen, a former State Department official, observed that Bangladesh, an important country, if only because of its sheer size, often goes unnoticed because it is near the two most populous nations, China and India.

Bangladesh Mission Chief to the United States, Ambassador Humayun Kabir, speaking as Special Guest said that by having free and fair elections, Bangladesh has set itself up as a “peace entrepreneur” in South Asia. He also said that “when people are democratically empowered, they are most equipped to fight poverty and extremism.” He reminded the audience that Prime Minister Hasina has promised to form a regional task force to fight terrorism in Bangladesh and the United States “should work on lifting their relationship to a new level and fight poverty, climate change and terrorism through a new bottom-up strategy.” He invited the Obama administration to work together with Bangladesh to play a constructive role in reaching out to the Muslim world.

Mr. White said the December 2008 election went reasonably well and the results reflected the will of the people. He said that in terms of polling, two steps that the Bangladesh government took were worth emulating by other countries- having photos on the voter IDs and the posting of voting results at the polling stations immediately after the count. He said that in the coming years, the relationship between the majority and the minority parties will be crucial to watch and will determine progress in the country.

Mr. Manikas, who has been observing Bangladesh since early 1990s, accompanied a team of 60 NDI election observers to Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, this election. He spoke elaborately of the successes and failures of the caretaker government and concluded that the 2008 elections were “well-run.” He felt that the two-thirds majority won by the Awami League (AL) will now affect how politics develops, and will pose a challenge to the ruling party in terms of forging meaningful participation from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Alliance. He suggested that Bangladesh could follow the example of South Africa where the opposition was offered an equal number of seats in parliamentary committees but not the same voting rights. He also wondered if AL will limit the reach of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which “seems to be operating independently.”

Mr. Wazed said that the Awami League is a reform-oriented party and should take credit for many of the reforms that the caretaker government undertook. He refuted Mr. Manikas’ assessment that the change in the electorate was a “swing;” rather he said it was a “shift” toward the Awami League. He said that it would only be a “swing” if the margin of victory was close to 5% to 6%, but this time it was 18%. He noted that there was almost no violence against the minority community after the elections, which is very different from 2001. He also noted that AL is taking a “conciliatory approach” toward the opposition, offering them the post of Deputy Speaker and committee chairmanships in Parliament. He said that ultimately the AL will need the help of the opposition to move forward. Mr. Wazed expressed pleasure that the BNP had participated in the inaugural session of parliament, which they had earlier threatened to boycott. According to him, the AL will proceed in a different manner from the past. For example, AL’s members of Parliament and Ministers have been warned that anyone who gets a “bad reputation will be replaced.” He stated that extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh have already stopped and that AL would keep it that way. According to him, AL has already stated that they will not interfere with the Election Commission if they should take steps against any AL Member of Parliament and also promised not to interfere with the Anti-Corruption Commission. They would take steps to root out terrorism and train the police force. He said that we have a “very, very poorly trained police force.” He noted that AL would also bring down the price of food and essentials by de-linking prices from the world market.

Dr. Habib sketched a history of Bangladesh’s experience with religious extremism and pointed out that radical Islamist thinking, though limited in reach, is a fairly recent phenomenon. He expressed dismay that while civil societies around the world have expressed outrage at the Mumbai incident, “there has been no public expression of outrage or condemnation by Bangladeshi civil society.” According to him, there are about “11 registered political parties which are built exclusively or indirectly on a program of Islamic revival.” In fact, he noted, there are more religious parties in Bangladesh than non-religious ones and one of these parties fielded the highest number of candidates in the elections. Bangladesh is not immune from terrorism. He noted that over the past decade terrorist attacks were carried out by some of these groups. He quoted a Dhaka University economist who calculated that enterprises run by fundamentalists earn about 12 billion Taka ($171 million) and that the “fundamentalist sector” has a growth rate of 7.5—9% compared to the 4.5—5% in the mainstream national sector. He gave several reasons why there are Islamist ideologies in Bangladesh.

One of them, he said is the “intellectual and cultural intolerance on the part of the growing and increasingly impatient educated Bangladeshi civil society” which actively rejects “any kind of religious regimen in public life.” He suggested that those with ideologies different from the powerful social mainstream can feel a sense of deprivation and humiliation which can then lead to extremist, irrational thinking and behavior. Dr. Habib explained that this does not mean appeasing fundamentalist or terrorist thinking. He urged initiation by Bangladesh civil societies of a national climate of rational and respectful political discourse that allows space for political opinion of all varieties. Only then would all political groups feel included and not gravitate towards extremist thinking, and eventually terrorist violence. He strongly advocated for an implicitly pluralist political culture and said that Bangladesh should strive to live up to its early historical tradition of being an inclusive, tolerant, and prosperous, society. #

First published January 28, 2009, WASHINGTON, D.C.