Monthly Coupon

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bangladesh enjoys a pretty clean election and a decisive result

The tenacity of hope

It went better than anyone dared hope. On December 29th Bangladesh held its first general election for seven years. It was well-attended, with a 70% turnout, well-organised, largely peaceful and, despite some vote-buying and other malpractice, far cleaner than its predecessors. It produced an astonishing, massive landslide for the alliance led by the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister from 1996-2001, and daughter of the country’s murdered independence leader.

YET, AS always, the voting was the easy part. After two years under an army-backed “caretaker” government, the return to democratic rule is unlikely to be smooth. The army staged an unannounced coup in January 2007 amid street violence ahead of a scheduled election that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in power from 1991-96 and 2001-06, was rigging. Both the BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, widow of an assassinated former general and president, and the Awami League had run corrupt, inept governments.

The two parties had debased the country’s politics into a Punch-and-Judy show of non-co-operation and vindictive retaliation. The army hoped to purge them, jailing both Sheikh Hasina and Mrs Zia for a year on corruption charges, along with some of their senior henchmen, and trying in vain to send the two “begums” into exile. But the parties and their leaders proved to have stubborn roots, and the army had to relent. The begums were freed and Bangladeshi politics has resumed its five-yearly anti-incumbency cycle.

The election, however, was something of a triumph. The voters’ list had been shorn of 11m “ghosts”, and 81m genuine voters registered, with their photographs. The campaign saw far less violence than in the past. The spread of mobile phones, many with cameras, produced an army of unofficial campaign monitors, alert to any violation. On polling day the mood in Dhaka was calm, proud and even jolly.

Countless lamp-posts, telegraph poles and trees had been draped with lines of string festooned with small, tattered black-and-white election flyers (an unintended if predictable consequence of a ban on colour posters and wall-pasting). At polling stations long segregated queues, with many women in their finest saris, waited patiently to vote. Ballot boxes were translucent (in 2001, 111 polling stations recorded more votes than voters). Foreign observers were impressed.

For one-third of voters this was their first election. A further 23% had the vote just once before, in 2001. The BNP-led coalition that won then proved unusually venal and incompetent even by local standards. Voters punished it severely. The BNP’s share of the 300 seats contested has fallen from 193 to around 27. It seems also to have been hurt by its alliance with Islamist parties, the largest of which, Jamaat-e-Islami, was reduced from 17 seats to just two. This will be welcomed by those worried about the spread of radical Islam in Bangladesh. Just before the election, seven members of a banned extremist group were arrested, and a large cache of explosives seized. A vast majority of Bangladesh’s more than 150m people are Muslims. But the BNP’s calls to voters to shun the more secular League in order to protect Islam seem to have backfired.

The League now finds itself with a huge parliamentary majority—some 230 seats on its own (up from 62) with a further 30-odd won by its allies. The BNP, more of whose leaders were targets of the interim government’s anti-corruption drive, and which had said only cheating could make it lose the election, is likely to cry foul. There is a risk of a traditional response: mass protests; general strikes; and a boycott of parliament. That is why some neutrals hoped for a close result.

So huge is the BNP’s defeat, however, that its protests will hardly be credible. A bigger danger may be that the scale of the victory goes to Sheikh Hasina’s head and makes her high-handed. During the campaign, she promised a new bipartisan approach, offering the opposition the chairs of some parliamentary committees. She might now be tempted to renege. Her long, bitter feud with Mrs Zia has not abated. The army forced the begums to meet at an Army Day reception in November. They managed to exchange courtesies, but not to make eye contact.

Nevertheless, optimists hope that the relative peace of the two-year interregnum, the chastening experience of detention and the enthusiasm the election itself generated might make it hard for the parties to return to their bad old winner-take-all ways. And they know that the army x will be looking over their shoulders.

Asked what they wanted from a new government, most voters—of whom some 45% live on less than a dollar a day—had a simple answer: cheaper food. In this one respect, the government may be in luck. A good rice harvest and lower international prices for fuel and other commodities have already dented inflation. But in the current global slump, Bangladesh’s economic growth is also expected to fall, from about 6.2% in 2008.

On past form, Bangladesh’s voters might expect their new government to devote itself not to their welfare but to persecuting its rivals and looting the public purse. During the campaign, Sheikh Hasina pushed the fashionable slogan of “change”. The result is the clearest possible endorsement of that call. One 80-year-old, voting for the first time, saw the result as Bangladesh’s brightest day since the assassination of Sheikh Hasina’s father in 1975. With such hopes invested in her, she is almost bound to disappoint. #

First published in The Economist, December 30, 2008

Verdict against graft, war crimes, militancy


Voters lifted Awami League and its allies to unprecedented gains on a groundswell of feeling against patronage, corruption, war crimes and militancy in Monday's election.

THE PEACEFUL polling, with record turnout gave Sheikh Hasina's Awami League a stunning haul of 230 seats, a big enough majority in parliament to overcome procedural hurdles and pass legislation, and even tweak the country's constitution.

Observers are waiting to see how the party, which campaigned with the mantra of 'Change' to cut across social classes, will go about its business of governing the country that has runaway prices weighing on people, with most analysts saying the Hasina administration should attach priority to economy in the wake of the global recession.

Price hikes that began with the past BNP-led government from 2001-2006 and AL's hammering on graft—the reputation of former prime minister Khaleda Zia's sons and cabinet colleagues for using political perches to benefit themselves and their friends—were major reasons for the four-party's downfall in this election.

That women and religious minorities could cast their ballots without fear may also have been reason for the catastrophic losses suffered by BNP's ally Jamaat-e-Islami in particular, the party gaining only two seats in the next parliament.

Anti-war criminal sentiment that built up over the past two years also played havoc on the four-party alliance's polls prospects.

"Relentless campaigning against war criminals is the reason for the downfall of Jamaat," says Dhaka University history professor Syed Anwar Hossain.

Both BNP and Jamaat leaders have also been accused of aiding and abetting the Islamist militants who carried out attacks on Hasina and British envoy Anwar Choudhury, in a bid to shut their rivals out.

Their deeds over those five years likely prompted first-time voters, all post-independence generation, to reject hard line politics.

New voters, estimated at 30 percent of some 8 crore enrolled, were also drawn to young and new faces among AL candidates.

"People suffered during the four-party government and the issues of price hike, militancy and lack of good governance resulted in their losses," Hossain told

"People used the first tenure of the AL regime as a comparison yardstick, and the first four years of the first Awami League tenure were marked by success stories," he added.

"BNP's organisational weakness, image crisis due to the anticorruption crackdown contributed to its failure in securing a solid ground," Hossain observed.

"Bangladesh is a tilting nation, this time it has tilted towards AL."

"Hopefully, AL will establish a cautious, controlled and future oriented government."

Khaleda, Hasina's fiercest foe, after an emergency meeting with her policymakers the day after BNP's unprecedented polls debacle, stopped short of "rejecting" the election results but said the Election Commission's "staged results" were unacceptable.

There was concern that the BNP and its allies, which governed for five turbulent years until they stepped aside in October 2006 for a caretaker government, might contest the loss by calling mobs into the streets.

They cried foul play as the voting closed, alleging irregularities and slow voting.

But few of Khaleda's followers seemed to believe that the Election Commission, praised by international observers for its impartiality, would overturn the results on the basis of their spotty allegations of abuses.

The victory of the AL, and its allies, including former president HM Ershad's Jatiya Party, which polled 27 seats, appears increasingly likely to be accepted without a recurrence of the turmoil and violence that have often marred past elections in Bangladesh. #
First published by, January 1, 2008

How would Khaleda Zia react to peoples’ verdict?


The election for the 9th Parliament was held on December 29, 2008 in presence of thousands of outside observers. The caretaker government, which took power on January 11, 2007 through army backing, must be congratulated for a job well-done. This caretaker government had reformed the Election Commission, prepared an honest voters list, make ready the voters’ photo ID, and finally conduct a fair election. The electorates have given their verdict by casting their votes in a free and non-threatening environment. It is now up to the losing party or alliance of parties to gracefully accept the verdict of voters.

IN OTHER democracies around the world, the losing party is the first one to give the concession speech, which is usually short. The losing candidate or party offers the proverbial olive branch to the victorious candidate and then assures the winner his or her help to move forward the country in the right direction. This happened on November 3, 2008 in the U.S. Senator McCain did not wait for the last precinct to be reported. When he saw that Senator Obama has come out victorious in many states and had garnered over 50% of the electoral votes, Senator McCain thought it was appropriate for him to give that concession speech. He was gracious, polite, and his tone was conciliatory. In fact, he gave one of the best concession speeches in recent times.

Now, would this happen in Dhaka this time around? The parliamentary election in allover Bangladesh took place on December 29, 2008. Within hours of the closing of all polling places, results were percolating through the media. In the wee small hours of December 30, 2008 the media was reporting that the parliamentary candidates from the grand alliance of Awami League were coming out victorious with a wide margin. It looked as if the grand alliance may secure about 80% or more of the total parliamentary seats. But the leader of the losing party and its alliance kept her deafening silence. Understandably, it was a tiring day for Khaleda Zia; therefore, no concession speech came out from her. As the day will wore by, is it possible that Khaleda Zia will address the nation and offer her concession speech? If the past gives us any clue, it won’’ happen anytime soon. In fact, it may never happen!

On the contrary, we may hear from her speech the following:
1. The election was rigged a big time.
2. Many voters favoring her party could not cast their votes.
3. There was a conspiracy hatched to take away the victory from her party and the alliance.
4. The election officials favored the other party as per the blueprint worked out by an invisible hand.
Now, why am I writing all these in advance? The reason is simple. I have watched the leading politicians of Bangladesh in recent times. And I have seen that the losing party’s lead person always say that the election was engineered in a way to take away victory from them. Moreover, only a few days ago in her stump speeches allover Bangladesh , Khaleda Zia said that her party and alliance would capture over 75% of the parliamentary seats. No pre-election poll was cited as reference. But that hardly matters in Bangladesh .

On the contrary, I read one poll released by ‘New Age’ English daily and another report published by ‘Daily Star’. Both of these newspapers had reported that the grand alliance of Awami League was favored to garner more popular votes and parliamentary seats. The question which arises naturally — was Khaleda Zia not reading the pre-election polls taken by independent bodies?

This too much expectation of securing more seats in the parliament has its down side as well. The pride gets into the head of the political boss and she simply won’t buzz from the view that her party would have secured an absolute majority had it not for the “widespread rigging” that took place in all precincts. It is granted that when 80 million voters would cast their votes in about 35,000 to 40,000 polling places, then there would be some irregularity in a handful of polling places. But that should not grant a license to the losing party to characterize the entire election as some kind of charade.

There were other factors for a wide swinging in the election results that favored Awami League and its alliance. The previous election was held in October 2001; therefore, in the last 7 years many young Bangladeshis were eligible to vote. How these young voters would cast their votes is a subject of much conjecture. Obviously, the new voters being young and idealistic would prefer to cast their votes in favor of candidates who say “changing the status quo” would be his or her mantra. In this election cycle, the grand alliance of Awami League’s election mantra was for “Change” while the four-party alliance of BNP sticks to their old mantra of “Sovereignty” of the nation. This writer never understood which nation intends to gobble up Bangladesh ! The electorates in Bangladesh bought the message of “Change” over “National Security” many a time and the election results affirm this quite succinctly.

The other reasons Khaleda Zia’s alliance did very poorly were inclusion of Jamaat-i-Islam, the party many Bangladeshis equated with Razakars, the enemies of 1971 Liberation War, and Fifth Columnists. Also, many BNP politicians who made tons of illegal money during 2001 through 2006 ran in the election as BNP-alliance candidate. The voters maybe unsophisticated, but they are not dumb. Predictably, they rejected those candidates as if they were vermin of some sorts. Taken all these factors together, one could clearly see that the political wind was blowing against the BNP and its alliance. Under these circumstances, to obtain more than 50% of the parliamentary seats would have been a task only reserved for a magician or a politician deft in soothsaying.

In summary, the electorates have spoken in one loud voice and they soundly rejected the party that housed some criminals who camouflaged as politicians. These parliamentary members have been engaged in wholesale looting of the public goods including raw cash. Khaleda Zia had grossly underestimated the power of ballots. Rather than acting as if nothing wrong has happened a la the proverbial ostrich that buried its head in the sand, she should gracefully accept the verdict of her countrymen. She should also cleanse her party by giving a good riddance to all the politicians who were engaged in wholesale thievery during 2001 and 2006, and reform her party by infusing new blood. Finally, she should dissociate her alliance from Jamaat-i-Islam - the party that betrayed the spirit of 1971 when it acted as the Fifth Columnists during the dark days of 1971. A new BNP without razakars, looters, would most certainly be a good start. Let us see if Khaleda Zia moves in that direction. #

First published in

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans , USA

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bangladesh stunned by Awami League's victory


Bangladesh is set for a government with the biggest parliamentary majority since 1973, following Monday's general elections designed to bring an end to two years of military-backed rule.

In an election marked by high turnout and few incidents, the centre-left Awami League - headed by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina - and its allies pulled off a stunning victory, winning a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber national assembly.

The Mohajot (Grand Coalition) alliance practically demolished its rivals, the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally the Jamaat-e-Islami. All top leaders of the Jamaat lost their seats.

The sheer scale of the Awami League's victory has left people searching for an explanation. Even the party's leaders appear to be taking a pause for thought.

"We were certainly expecting victory, but perhaps not as big as this," said Abul Mal Abdul Muhith, a senior Awami League leader from the Sylhet region who is tipped to become the next finance minister.

"This is clearly a major challenge for us, we have to deliver," Mr Muhith told the BBC Bengali service in an interview.

People's will?
As results came through from different parts of the country, pundits and analysts dug deep to construct a plausible cause for the BNP's debacle.

"It is clearly a robust expression of people's will," said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper.

"First-time voters made up nearly a third of the total, and these young voters rejected the BNP's negative campaign based on religion and fear."

A rejection of the BNP was not the only factor in the result. The Awami League, which led Bangladesh to independence in 1971, is often accused to living in the past. But this time they surprised everyone with a new-look campaign and softer rhetoric.

"The Awami League was seen as an unfashionable, rather rustic party in the 1980s," said Muzammil Hussain, deputy editor of the daily Samakal. "But the party's manifesto this time as well as its campaign strategy had touches of modernity which appealed to the young."

It is rare for Bangladeshi politicians to offer a vision to the young, but veteran journalist Amanullah Kabir agreed that the Awami League leader appeared to have done just that.

''Sheikh Hasina's call to build a digital Bangladesh, with specific goals for economic development, gave the young something to dream about, and they have voted en masse for that dream'', said Mr Kabir.

Such big victories please the party faithful, but the neutral are always a little fearful.

They point out that the BNP and its alliance won a two-thirds majority in 2001, and produced what many people considered to be the most corrupt government in the country's history.

Awami League leaders were quick to calm fears that its overwhelming majority would make it autocratic in power.

''We have a great victory, but no matter how few seats the opposition have, we will make every effort to include them in policy making,'' Hasan Mahmud, a close aide to Sheikh Hasina, told the BBC Bengali service in an interview.

'Guns and goons'
The elections mark a personal triumph for Sheikh Hasina, whose political career seemed at an end last year when she was jailed on charges of corruption.

Ms Hasina had often been bracketed with her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the BNP, with both being accused of allowing "guns and goons" to become part of the country's political fabric.

Their rivalry became known as Battle of the Begums, the term for a woman of high social rank.

Detractors claimed that Bangladeshi politics could be reformed only if the two ladies stepped aside.

This deliberate policy to remove the the two ladies became known as the Minus Two formula.

The caretaker government in 2007 used its emergency powers to try and force Ms Hasina and Ms Khaleda into exile. The effort failed miserably.

The next attempt was to try and get the two parties themselves to ditch their leaders. They found no takers.

Next came attempts to split the major parties and create "reformist" factions with an aim to effect changes in leadership. It only made reform a dirty word in Bangladeshi politics.

In a final throw of the dice, the government sent both the ladies to jail, and slapped a number of corruption charges against them. An impression soon took hold that they would be convicted and thus disqualified from holding office.

But by then the government's failure to halt spiralling food prices had ended the public's infatuation with the army-backed regime. A sense of drift had gripped the caretaker regime with no clear goal in sight.

Price to pay
It was not long before the caretaker government began searching for a way out.

Elections were seen as the only plausible exit strategy, but such elections would only succeed if the two major parties, led by the two Begums, took part.

The government had already set December 2008 as the target date for general elections, and it stuck to the time-table. But there was a price.

The political reforms they had promised did not materialise. They had to largely soften their their much-trumpeted anti-corruption drive. The two Begums, far from being sidelined, were put back into the equation.

Monday's elections mark not only the triumph of one and the defeat of the other.

It also marks the total failure of the Minus Two formula.

There is one silver lining in the cloud for the men and women who have ruled Bangladesh since a state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007.

These elections are likely to go down in history as the first universally-credible polls in the country's history.

The defeated BNP has already raised questions about alleged polling irregularities.

But these complaints are unlikely to find any support outside their party offices. #

Sabir Mustafa is chief of BBC Bangla Service and files this report from Bangladesh capital Dhaka

First published by BBC NEWS online, December 30, 2008


Shiekh Hasina wins Bangladesh majority

Photo: Azizur Rahim Peu, DRIK News


The BBC journalist in Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, says although official results of the parliamentary poll will be known soon, supporters of the Awami League are already celebrating landslide victory.

Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League has won a substantial victory in Bangladesh's election, with almost all results declared.

Election officials have said the Awami League has won more than three-quarters of seats in the 300-seat parliament.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Ms Hasina's arch-rival Khaleda Zia has won barely a tenth of that number.

Turnout was high in the first election for seven years, which came after two years of army-backed rule.

The win for the Awami League is a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the two parties.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have dominated politics in Bangladesh for years and are again vying for power after two years of army-backed rule.

A win for the Awami League will be a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the two parties, says our correspondent.

Tight security
Provisional figures show Sheikh Hasina's alliance has taken more than 150 of the 300 seats in parliament.

Our correspondent says the early results also suggest that the BNP's ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, has lost most of its seats.

A leader of Khaleda Zia's BNP said its supporters were kept from voting in various parts of the country, and it planned to file a complaint.

"We have reports that BNP supporters were barred from coming to polls and also were driven away from polling stations in many places," BNP leader Rizvi Ahmed told local television, the Reuters news agency reports.

Election officials say more than 70% of Bangladesh's 81 million voters are thought to have cast their ballots in a poll intended to return the country to democracy after two years of rule by a military-backed government.

Security was tight throughout polling day, with about 50,000 soldiers and 600,000 police deployed to guard against election fraud and violence.

Chief election commissioner Shamsul Huda said he had complete confidence in the election process and there was "no scope for fraud of vote rigging".

He went on: "So it will be difficult to reject the election result this time. We expect people will elect a parliament, which even if not a dream parliament, it will be a good one."

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia - both former prime ministers - were jailed for suspected corruption but released to contest the vote.

During campaigning, the two rivals pledged to lower food prices, and to tackle corruption and terrorism in the nation of 144 million people.

They also both promised to end the confrontation, strikes and violent street rallies that have marked Bangladeshi politics for years. The two women alternated in power for 15 years until 2006.

Anti-corruption drive
No serious violence was reported during the election, and our correspondent says the mood at a polling station he visited was festive.

Some 200,000 electoral observers, including 2,500 from abroad, monitored the national vote.

The army cancelled elections due in January 2007 after months of street protests and battles between gangs of rival party supporters spiralled out of control.

The army-backed caretaker government then tried to root out corruption from the country's elites.

Our correspondent says the newly-empowered Anti-Corruption Commission sought to prosecute the top politicians and businessmen who had earned Bangladesh its reputation as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

More than 11 million phoney names were purged from the voter roll.

"This time we feel that there is an opportunity to proceed towards democracy," one voter told the BBC.

"I'm feeling very happy that there is this peaceful atmosphere for casting votes."

A simple majority of the parliament's 300 seats is enough to secure victory, but analysts have said that if no clear winner emerges, it could lead to fears of unrest if supporters of the rival parties take to the streets. #

First published in BBC NEWS, December 29, 2008


Monday, December 29, 2008

Bangladesh: Ready to Vote Again


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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bangladesh battle of familiar foes


For Bangladesh's eunuchs, river gypsies and prisoners, Monday's general elections will be a unique experience. It is the first time any will be allowed to vote.

But for the vast majority of the country's 81 million voters, the elections will mark a return to Bangladeshi politics as normal, after two years of emergency rule when an army-backed caretaker government tried to rewrite how things are done here.

In many ways it failed, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is certain that one of the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, or Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, will be voted into office once again, despite the government doing all it could to drive them out of politics.

It came to power promising to clean things up, after months of street protests and battles between gangs of rival party supporters spiralled out of control.

The Awami League accused the BNP of planning to steal the elections that were supposed to be held in January 2007.

But with the support of many Bangladeshis, and foreign governments, the army intervened, declared a state of emergency and cancelled the elections.

New register
Encouraged by leading members of Dhaka's civil society, and senior army officers, who had grown enraged at the corruption of the politicians, the caretaker government then embarked on an ambitious programme to sort Bangladesh out.

"Under these two illiterate women, democracy had collapsed," one senior caretaker official told me at the time.

"Mafia-like thugs, teachers, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Everyone was invited to join their parties to get rich. And there is no way we are going to allow them back," he said.

The Election Commission set about drawing up a new voter register to ensure that the coming elections would be fair, and took more than 11 million fake names off the roll.

The newly empowered Anti-Corruption Commission sought to prosecute the top politicians and businessmen who had earned Bangladesh its reputation as one of the world's most corrupt countries. Dozens were arrested, along with their wives and children who had helped stash their money.

The government signalled it was not afraid of going after even the biggest names when it arrested Khaleda Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, who many Bangladeshis believe embodies everything that is wrong with the winner-takes-all political culture.

It then tried to drive the two party leaders into exile, but when that failed, had them arrested on corruption charges.

From then on things started to go badly for the caretakers and their friends in the army, who carefully kept to the background. They tried and failed to create a "third political force", and then tried and failed to engineer serious splits in the two main parties.

Draconian emergency laws kept trouble off the streets, but lost the government friends in the media who felt bullied by the army into censoring their reports, and the only 24-hour news channel was shut down.

The politicians complained that the anti-corruption drive was itself political, and many Bangladeshis felt that the treatment of the two leaders was vindictive.

Lawyers for Tarique Rahman said he was so badly beaten by army officers when he was in jail that he might not walk again.

"This is a revolution in slow motion," the official told me. "This is not a popularity contest."

But by the end of its first year, with anger at food prices also mounting, the government felt obliged to change its strategy and concentrate on holding acceptable elections within the year.

It soon found that unless Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina were out of jail, neither party would agree to participate. So after months of negotiations, they were allowed out, and so were their cronies.

'Political history'
The government, which had promoted reforms protecting the independence of the judiciary, now pressured the courts into suspending cases, and the anti-corruption drive ran out of steam.

"It did not meet its expectation, and in that way you can say that a good chance was missed," the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury said.

"But then it happens when you are dealing with a problem of this nature, in a scenario like Bangladesh politics. You cannot be sure that if you start a thing well it will finish well," he said.

A popular feeling in Dhaka is that the caretakers correctly spotted what is wrong with Bangladesh's politics but were the wrong people to try to reform it.

"To fix democracy you need more democracy, not less," a friend told me.

They also underestimated the enduring popularity and strength of the two party leaders.

"When you look at these two ladies, they are not just people, they also reflect the political history of Bangladesh," Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a political analyst, said.

"They represent important social and political forces."

Those forces will be back in play from 29 December when a record number of voters are expected to turn out and vote for a return to Bangladesh's flawed democracy #

First published BBC News, December 28, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fall of Dhaka: we must learn from history


HISTORY WAS revisited on Tuesday by a silent majority, who still carry the scars of a divided Pakistan in 1971. The day is marked as `Fall of Dhaka' while it should have been remembered as the dissection of an organism, disintegration of an entity.

After 37 years, the scar has not healed. The blame game continues, and people moved on, putting the event as part of a history book on their shelves. The smokescreen created by politicians and military failed to hide the reality, and we as a nation just didn't care enough. Whether it was politics or conspiracy, we failed because we didn't care. And we stand to suffer even worse circumstances if we fail again, as we may never get a second chance. We need to accept each other with all our linguistic and cultural differences as one nation or we die small deaths. In these darker times, we need to light the candles of hope together for our survival or perish in obscurities for our historical blunders.

Sharing views with `The News' on this day, people from different segments of life expressed the same dismay, same annoyance and same hurt. Mrs Zaheeruddin, a Pakistani Bengali, had tears in her eyes while accusing our leaders of their insensitivities when people were cut into two.

Shama Chaudhry, a 45-year-old housewife, had some painful visions to share of being uprooted from her soil for her father's ideology. Unable to eradicate her origin, she has blended well with her identity as a Pakistani, as she was a born Pakistani. "Yet, sometimes, my origin becomes a pain," Shama narrated various incidences she came across from 1971 to 2008.

Sixty-year-old Mr Rahim shared with `The News' about his marriage with a Pakistani woman when he was posted in Pakistan. He informed that back at that time, it was the government's initiative to offer a grant of Rs5,000-10,000 for a cross-marriage, as an effort to blend both people together as one society. He said many cross marriages took place at the time. "Now those people have blended with the society while some left after the debacle of 1971 back to Bangladesh or to other greener pastures where they wouldn't face any identity crisis." Mr Rahim survived with his accent and different looks because he still believes in the ideology of Pakistan.

As a witness of history, it seems strange that though we have gone through enormous changes in the form of men and material world, yet we have learned nothing from history. We have neither forgotten nor forgiven, just chosen to look the other way while the reality on ground remains the same. After the 1971 debacle, Karachi TV Centre was attacked by public while they showed glimpses of the `Surrender Saga', but on the same day in 2008, all the channels were showing the same humiliation over and over again with the nation remaining silent.

Acceptance of history is a good sign, no wonder, but learning no lesson from it is unforgivable. The scenes of people fleeing from army action in East Pakistan carries close resemblance to the scenes witnessed in the tribal belts of Pakistan today. As the internally displaced people staged a protest rally on the D-Square Tuesday, we fail to see the resemblance, as we have moved on with our lives.

The lesson we failed to learn from the fiasco of 1971 is that `insurrection' is rarely decisive by itself; it paves the way for foreign invasion. It's good to revisit history but with a wiser standpoint, because if we don't, we would be condemned by history forever. #

First published in The International News, December 17, 2008 Schezee Zaidi writes from Islamabad, Pakistan

Friday, December 19, 2008

ULFA leader Anup Chetia seeks political asylum


AS NEW Delhi starts talking tough on Dhaka regarding the terror issues, the banned Indian armed group leaders, who are taking shelter in Bangladesh, have foreseen a difficult time ahead. After the Mumbai terror attacks in November, which aroused unprecedented public anger against the terrorists as well as the authority, the new Indian Union Home minister P. Chidambaram echoed the sentiment of the people with strongest words in the Parliament.

The leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom, who reportedly run training camps inside Bangladesh, predicted the outcome and hence they went for engaging the United Nation's refugee rights body to pursue for their jailed leader Anup Chetia. Apprehending the India's next course of actions to be tougher, the General Secretary of ULFA recently appealed for the political asylum in a safe country. Anup had written to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on December 7 urging for refugee status and political asylum. Besides Anup, who had been inside bar in Dhaka for a decade, his solicitor Muhammad Abdus Sattar also sent a letter to the Representative of UNHCR Bangladesh Office in Dhaka asking for intervention. Both the letters have been included in the December 15 issue of the ULFA's electronic fortnightly mouthpiece 'Freedom'.

Mentionable that, answering the questions from the Parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha on December 16, the Home minister commented, "A message must go that Bangladesh is duty-bound to honour its commitment and assurances." Asserting that the ministry had information regarding the presence of Indian insurgents in Bangladesh soil, Chidambaram stressed on Dhaka's prompt actions against Northeastern insurgents, who were operating from the neighbouring country.

Chidambaram also commented that Bangladesh must realise that it would only be hurting itself in the long run if it did not share a good relationship with India and its borders with India were not secure. He also added that the ULFA and other insurgent groups had been working with the Bangladeshi terror outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) to continue disrupting activities in Assam and other parts of Northeast.

The ULFA leader Anup described, in his letter to António Guterres, head of the Geneva based UNHCR, as being held at Kashimpur Jail in the outskirts of Dhaka. He pleaded that he was 'no longer a convict to be held in a jail' as, Anup argued that he had completed seven years of imprisonment for entering Bangladesh illegally carrying foreign currencies and a satellite phone.

He also repeated declaring the aim of ULFA to restore Sovereignty of Assam (meaning a Swadhin Asom out of India). As this is in direct conflict with the Government of India's policy of national integrity, Anup argued, he became an enemy of New Delhi. Eventually the organisation was proscribed and the Indian Army operations were launched against ULFA resulting in deaths of many of its cadres, Anup stated.

Disclosing about his birth at Jerai Gaon in Tinisukia of Assam, Anup, whose real name is Golap Barua, added, "I was arrested in India and was mercilessly tortured and finding my life was in danger I escaped using a ploy with the Indian authorities. Since then I have been trying to avoid capture by the Indian authorities."

India has seriously been pressurising Bangladesh government from the very beginning of my arrest in this country to hand me over to the Indian authority, Anup said adding that he had already denounced his Indian Nationality. More over there is no extradition treaty between India and Bangladesh, which inspires Dhaka has so far rejected New Delhi request to hand over him.

Apprehending his life 'will not be safe soon after his release from the prison', Anup urged for his safety and appealed for intervention by the UNHCR Bangladesh Office to grant him 'a refugee status and political asylum'. Anup claimed that the 'long ten years and eight months in Bangladesh prison has taken its toll' and he was 'craving for a normal existence'.

Meanwhile the letter addressed to Pia Pyrtz Phiri, the Bangladesh Representative of UNHCR, by his advocate Muhammad Abdus Sattar termed Anup as a 'Freedom Fighter', whose life was under threat as Dhaka might extradite him to India. Apprehending his possible handing over to Indian authorities, Anup applied for political asylum to Bangladesh government. The government in Dhaka summarily rejected his prayer, following which a Bangladeshi human rights organisation filed a writ petition to the Supreme Court (of Bangladesh) against that rejection, the advocate elaborated.

The apex court issued a 'Rule to Bangladesh Government that why Anup Chetia shouldn't be given the asylum and the Rule not yet been disposed of'. The case is pending in the court, said Sattar adding, "Without considering the legal and political status of my client Anup Chetia, I came to know that there is a covert move possibly emanated from the terrible pressure created by Indian Government, the Bangladesh authority is preparing to hand over Anup Chetia to Indian authority very soon."

Mr Sattar concluded his letter saying, "Considering the gravity of the situation I should earnestly solicit your kind, effective and swift intervention so that Anup Chetia is not handed over to Indian authorities and would request you further to take trouble to arrange his asylum in any possible country to save his life." #

Nava Thakuria is a journalist based in Guwahati, India. He specialises on North-East India riddled with militancy and insurgency. He could be reached by:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter, War and Refugee Camps


“SO, WHAT were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.

After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer after a long day’s work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio’s English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis. Officially, this super flotilla – ‘the most powerful force in the world’ – was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.

As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.

We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.

As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.

These, then, are a few of my memories……

Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra. He could be reached at:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond

Bangladesh’s 29 December election will not return the country to civilian rule unless those with a stake in the vote – including the international community – ensure all registered parties contest credible, peaceful polls.

The latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, says the vote and an end to emergency rule do not equal democracy, but are necessary preconditions to the country’s stability.

Bangladesh December 2008 general election is expected to end a two year military-enforced state of emergency and return the country to democratic governance. While an end to emergency rule and elections do not equal democracy, both are necessary preconditions for the country’s stability. Through peaceful dialogue – an important achievement in its own right – the army-backed caretaker government (CTG) and the country’s main political parties have reached agreements on many issues that could derail the elections. However, there are no guarantees that the election will take place on time, that all the major parties will participate, or that all of them will accept the results. Even a successful election will only be the initial step to developing a more effective democracy in Bangladesh. The immediate goals for all stakeholders – including the international community – should be to ensure that all registered political parties contest and that the elections are credible and free of violence. Beyond the general election the political parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army seeking a greater say in politics.

By late 2007 the CTG realised that reforms were easier to advocate than execute. Corruption had worsened despite its anti-graft campaign, and the political parties refused to undertake reforms or go to the polls without their jailed leaders. Faced with a failing reform agenda and declining popular support, the CTG was forced to abandon its “minus two” policy of sidelining the two major political parties’ leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and negotiate an exit strategy with the parties. Talks overcame many obstacles to elections contested by all the major parties, including the release of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, compulsory political party registration and the timing of the upazila (sub-district) polls. The upazila elections are slated for late January 2009, although their schedule is disputed.

The government has met many of the technical requirements to enhance poll credibility, but it has fallen short on several political conditions. New legislation aims to minimise the influence of ill-gotten wealth and a new electoral roll of over 80 million voters has been widely praised. However, a longstanding state of emergency curtailing fundamental rights, which may be lifted only after campaigning is under way, threatens the credibility of the election.

The political situation is complex and fragile. Bangladesh’s two largest political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are approaching the election from opposite positions. The Awami League, viewed as the frontrunner, is eager to contest the polls promptly and with few preconditions. The BNP is in disarray. The party threatened to boycott if emergency laws barring many of its members from standing in the election were not rescinded. BNP boycott threats have already forced one poll delay, and party leaders maintain a boycott is still an option if the state of emergency is not lifted by 17 December. If the election goes ahead without the BNP, its staunch ally and Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e Islami, believes it could go it alone and run as the default option for Bangladeshis who would otherwise vote for the BNP.

A number of factors could adversely affect the elections and their aftermath. Although the election laws make electoral malpractice more difficult, the Election Commission (EC) has been reluctant to enforce them. Allegations of rigging could spark a party boycott or political violence; the continued emergency could prompt rejection of results. Technical flaws on election day with ballots or the voter roll could cause a delay or require re-polling in some areas. Islamist militants like the Jamaat’ul Mujahideen Bangladesh are still active, even in Dhaka, and pose a threat not only to the election but also to the country’s longer-term security.

Keeping the military in the barracks will require the new government and the opposition to seek accommodation with each other and the army. Dialogue with the CTG has demonstrated to the political parties that they can advance their interests through peaceful negotiations. If civilian rule is to succeed in Bangladesh, cooperation must be placed before confrontation. A return to zero-sum politics by the parties could be an excuse for the army step in yet again. Only Islamist forces stand to gain from another military government.

In terms of next steps: • The caretaker government should completely lift the state of emergency before the elections and refrain from issuing presidential ordinances that restrict the rights and freedoms necessary for credible democratic elections. • The Election Commission should appropriately enforce the election law and the election code of conduct; immediately initiate a public information campaign on voting procedures, in particular clarifying what identification is needed to vote; publish results in a timely and transparent fashion and at all levels of the election administration; and refrain from positioning security personnel in polling stations or in a manner that interferes with the election process. • Election observers should consider the impact of the state of emergency or any emergency provisions issued as presidential ordinances on poll credibility before issuing public statements. • The political parties should abide by the election laws; continue to seek solutions to electoral-related issues through peaceful negotiations with the CTG and other parties; and accept the election results if independent election observers deem the elections free and fair. • The international community should pressure all parties to play by the rules and accept the results, as well as encouraging the new government and parliament to continue institutional reforms. The European Union (EU) should consider Instrument for Stability funding to support such steps.
Published by International Crisis Group, Brussels, December 11, 2008
For full report as PDF file click:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From military-controlled caretaker government to military-backed elected government


THE DEVELOPMENT in politics might not be "proactive", out right contradicted by a media practitioner friend who conducted a political assessment of Bangladesh in November and returned to Ottawa, Canada. He does not hesitate to predict that politicking could be "provocative".

A spontaneous reaction came from my long-term outspoken friend while in transit at Bahrain airport. He reacted after he saw my comments in the Facebook. If I understood his assessment that the transition from army backed caretaker government, would in fact switch to "army backed" elected government of proportionate representations from four major parties and some “selected” individuals.

A former Mukti Bahini officer a popular political commentator living in exile in New York agrees with him, but fears that incidences of civil unrest will occur soon after lifting state of emergency on December 17. He wraps up his theory that it will be an ideal situation for continuation of military subjugation in Bangladesh.

Nonetheless I am thrilled that Bangladesh is in transition to democracy – after two years of military-controlled interim government. Well Bangladesh is familiar of being governed by military juntas twice since 1975.

Therefore, it is not a new era for most citizenry, albeit not for those born after 1990 or was too young to understand, when military rule apparently ended with a sigh of relief. Thus the end of military rule paved way for the country’s first free, fair and credible election under a caretaker government.

At last the 9th parliamentary election will be held in the end of this December in midst of widespread fear, suspicion and conspiracy theories among the general public, specially those living in abroad.

Suddenly the constitutional democratic process were aborted by military chief Lt. General Moeen U Ahmed after he installed an interim government and terminated the scheduled elections in January 2007.

He promised the nation that he would halt criminalisation of politics, punish corrupt citizens – specially those who plundered public wealth, bring about electoral, judiciary and civil administrative reforms, and stamp organised crime, gangsters and put behind bars all evil-doers.

My argument does include whether the current interim government is legitimate or illegal, so long as they are bonded in broader promises that they will hand over power to a democratically elected government.

Well in his two years tenure as de facto leader of the impoverished nation of 150 million, he had to admit his failure and realised that the country needs to be governed by politicians and parliament, not by military generals who have failed to understand the sentiment of the people.

Will the political parties get equal opportunity for level playing field, a fair play? Apparently it seems NO. The Election Commission backed out from the (reformed) rules. Whereas the EC compromised certain rules to accommodate scores of “unwanted” applications for nominations. On the other hand, rejected hundreds of applications on the ground of not been able to follow the EC rules.

In the unfair play of game of politics, the four mainstream political parties have agreed to “proportionate parliament” and share with scores of other independent members in the new parliament to ensure checks and balance, which the military would like to see.

The four mainstream political parties Bangladesh Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP), Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami (sorry they have registered as Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami) and divided in two major political alliances. It is apparent that they have agreed on principle that they would share parliament by default thus keeping the militaries in good humour.

Of course General Moeen has in his mind that all the misdeeds and illegal activities of his interim government have committed need 9th parliament’s endorsement. On the other hand, he will not be happy if the parliament takes any attempt to pass any bills which will infringe his safe exit from the political, economic and administrative mess he has created.

He will also like to translate his dreams into reality through the incumbent parliament to pass the controversial National Security Council. Which most students of democratic accountability and democracy watchdogs have cautioned that the Turkish model of National Security Council would not at all be beneficial for transition to democracy and instead infringe the parliament’s power to scrutinise military activities. It will further institutionalise the military’s role in Bangladesh democratic process.

The pertinent question is will the parliament be sustainable? What most political observers is trying to fathom whether the parliament would need another election to restore democratic accountability and independence from the invisible military dictates. Possibly in another 12 months from now, Bangladesh would need another election to get out of this mess. It would be long way for Bangladesh to ensure democratic accountability, when the generals have an upper hand in state polity.

To conclude which political alliance will form the government? It all depends on who is not blaming General Moeen for their miseries of legal harassment and ordeal in prison. Any sorts of dissent will be punished by denial of their rightful share of the people’s mandate in the parliament, thus a faint chance of forming a national government.

Loser would those who question the legitimacy, criticise or accuse the interim government for conspiracy. In addition whoever is less outspoken or silent about conspiracy theories hatched by the kaki generals. #

Toronto, December 12, 2008

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a Bangladesh born journalist presently living in exile in Canada and specialises in conflict, terrorism, security and intelligence in South Asia. He served as Bangladesh correspondent for TIME Asia magazine, press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), Daily Times (Lahore), investigative news portal (New Delhi), and the Bangladesh Observer (Dhaka). He edits streaming from Toronto, a news portal for South Asian Diaspora in North America. He could be reached at

Monday, November 17, 2008

Will banning of media and cell phone lead to rigged election?


THE BANGLADESH Election Commission (EC) the military-controlled care-taker government (CTG) have assured the nation that they plan to hold a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election on December 18, 2008’. However, how will they achieve such goal is still raises doubts as the procedures set up so far is still non-transparent and questionable. They said, ‘Don’t worry about the process--- just trust us’. Unfortunately, such promise doesn’t work more so in Bangladesh. In the history of Bangladesh, elections that were conducted by otherwise ‘able civil and military bureaucrats and judges’ in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1988 or February 15, 1996 and 2001 were mostly questionable and most of those elections were partly or wholly ‘rigged or doctored’. For example, in 1978, one of the most able Home Secretaries, an erstwhile CSP, Salahuddin Ahmed Chowdury delivered Gen Ziaur Rahman an overwhelming 98% votes by manipulating the ballots. When foreign media started questioning such result, General was shaken. Therefore, in his next election, he told his top bureaucrats not to make the result ‘unbelievable’. They followed his advice and he received 88% votes in his next election. The nation witnessed time and again similar election results delivered by our top bureaucrats. Each government assured the nation of a fair and transparent election but the end result was always ‘questionable’. Therefore, they instituted through mass movement a unique system in the world known as CTG, presumably a non-partisan non-political interim government whose only function is to deliver a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election’. Current Chief Election Commissioner and head of the CTG are both former CSPs like that of Salahuddin Ahmed and they are both non-political and non-partisan top notch bureaucrats. Let us hope that they would be different from their esteemed CSP colleague.

The officers of Bangladesh civil and military bureaucrats are the ‘cream of the society’ and they get all the privileges or cream of the government. Nevertheless their record of election delivery is very poor. None of them are wholly ‘fair, non-violent, transparent and credible’. Is it because their system is evil designed and mindset is corrupt? In 2001 election a privileged group of bureaucrats both civil and military headed by a judge secretly decided to deliver election victory to a specific party and in order to achieve it, among many others, the EC recruited a highly partisan group of Returning Officers (ROs or DCs), Presiding Officers (PrOs), Polling Officers (POs), Assistant Polling Officers (APOs), Police Officers (DIGs, SPs, OCs), etc. They were instructed to give victory to a certain party as Secretary Salahuddin did in 1978 and they delivered. However, in some pockets where they failed to manipulate or/and where voters ignored their threats and exercised their free will, they were butchered and massacred. For example, minority voters in Barisal and Faridpur were murdered and their homes were ransacked. Their women were raped. What a price to pay for exercising voting franchise!!! Recently nearly 123 million people voted in the U. S. President-elect Barack Obama got 65 million (53%) and his rival Senator John McCain received 57 million (46%) votes. It is said to have record voting, nearly 62% (in Bangladesh voting exceeds over 75% to 90% depending on bureaucrats). But none was butchered unlike Bangladesh. Not a single polling booth was taken over by goons or security forces, and no ballot stuffing occurred occupying the voting center unlike Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh election of 2001 in many areas, partisan group of security personnel went out and intimidated supporters of the party that they dislike. They arrested and paraded their leaders and in many cases, asked their supporters to pull down their campaign posters, flyers and also to close down their campaign offices. Being afraid, the party supporters and activists followed their orders. In addition, at times, both civil and military officials would take over certain polling centers for an hour or two and stuff ballot papers denying the actual voters to cast their votes. Such incidents could be reduced if there is full transparency. Unfortunately, the EC declared that ‘no media can report vote counting or election results directly from the voting centers prior to their manipulation’ and ‘no cell phones, no private or public automobiles’ will be allowed to operate on the Election Day. Third, political party activists are discouraged to transport voters to the polling booths. On the contrary, in USA, on Election Day, volunteers are especially encouraged to drive down voters to the polling booths and the media was free to report results on a continuing basis without soliciting approval of results from election officials. Therefore, critics argue that voting in USA is designed to solicit public opinion but voting in Bangladesh is designed to reinforce pre-determined goals.

Since Bangladesh infrastructure is primitive, road and river communication network is poor, even land phones are hardly reachable, in such environment, cell phones or mobiles are the best medium of communication. Secondly, since Bangladesh government officials generally suffer from a mindset of secrecy and dominance, and since many of them are highly corrupt, have poor ethical and moral values and easily get sold, denying media to broadcast the results or banning cell phones will surely open up scope for ‘rigging election result’. If there is any ‘takeover or seizure of polling centers by goons or military, Para-military or other security forces’, the public can report the incident right away through cell phones to superior authority for corrective actions or to the media and the election monitoring observers. Such facility can immensely help reduce the likelihood of ‘takeovers’ of polling centers, stuffing ballots and rigging the election. Unfortunately, the EC has banned its operation. The argument that they put up is very naïve and self defeating. They argue that the availability of Cell phone would assist the goons to coordinate takeover of polling centers and media reporting may not be accurate. They are partisan, not professional. The events of 2001 Election is still fresh in our minds. Bangladesh media reported the massacre of especially minority voters in Barisal and other districts. The government and its ‘cream of the society’ civil servants vehemently denied such looting and killing. It claimed that the media reports were false. Eventually as the international pressure mounted sanity prevailed and accepted the reality and the media was vindicated. In early 1990s when the U. S. Labor Dept was debating banning imports of garments and apparel from those countries that encourage or use child labor, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary in a letter claimed that ‘there is no child labor in Bangladesh’. No one believed him and in fact, it earned poor image for Bangladesh. Similar government denial was observed when media reported the terrorist executions of Bangla Bhai and Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the jehadi terrorists. Not only that, whenever government is replaced these bureaucrats play the piper and often falsely develop stories and cases accusing people’s representatives.

The EC claims that if cell phones are allowed then goons can coordinate and take over polling centers. Who are those goons? No goon can sustain in Bangladesh without some support either from the Law Enforcing Authority or political power house. Arms combing operation by the CTG if done correctly prior to election, no private goon can sustain.

Thousands of highly well armed police, BDR, RAB, Para-military and smart military forces of Bangladesh are capable of maintaining law and order and they can also ensure safety and security of polling centers and ballots. It’s notorious Rapid Armed Battalions (RABs) well known for extra-judicial killing is capable of discharging their responsibilities or rushing to the troubled centers quickly. In the last Mayor election in Barisal under the current administration, when a group of partisan RABs were found involved in seizure of polling centers and stuffing of ballots, as the Cell phones were not banned, general public reported the incidents right away to the media and as the media rushed to the spots, that group of partisan RABs hurriedly left the venue. Thus they failed to stuff the ballot boxes. If illegal seizure or capturing of polling centers is not guaranteed, stuffing of ballot boxes is easy and likely. In such case, voter list with photo ID or not is irrelevant because those who will seize a center they can stamp the ballots and stuff them at ease. Such will not guarantee ‘credible election’. Therefore, cell phones and media must not be banned on the Election Day.

In 2001 election, when I reported to the local Military Chief about the incident that a group of partisan military personnel ransacked the election campaign offices of a candidate and intimidated his supporters plus put up nasty posters against a party leader, the Commanding Officer looked at his ledger and said ‘ military vehicles went out to that area’. However, he asked me to get the number plates of each vehicle and the badges of each personnel and officers. He stated, ‘they must have impersonated military personnel’. Unfortunately, people of Bangladesh who are always afraid of military or police or anyone with killer weapons hardly record those numbers. In another incident, when a polling center was taken over by a group of goons, it take me over 20 minutes just to get hold of a workable land phone since neither automobile nor rickshaws were available. When I could finally speak to a military Captain, the young duty officer, he immediately dispatched the forces but by the time they reached the spot, the goons stuff sufficient ballots and left the venue. If cell phones would have been allowed, both reporting and dispatch could be efficient and quick. It is sad that a small group of partisan and greedy security officials and bureaucrats deprive the public of a fair, free and transparent election for their personal gain and in the process they bring disgrace and bad name to the entire police, Para-military and armed forces of the country.

Secondly, if cell phones are allowed, the media can report the ballot counts of each center right away across the country and thus possibility of manipulation or doctoring of results which is common in Bangladesh could be minimized. In the last elections, in many areas people voted freely but when the ROs (DCs) and PrOs sent the ballot counts, they manipulated the results. The major vehicle of ‘rigging of election results’ in Bangladesh are not political parties or their supporters as the government often claims but actually a small group of greedy and partisan civil and military bureaucrats that conduct the elections in utmost secrecy both at the local level as well in the Center. Without active connivance of bureaucracy both military and civil, it is nearly impossible to rig an election. Therefore, it should be made ‘transparent’ at every level. Secondly, transparent procedure must be correctly set, debated and publicly discussed to achieve goals.

Bangladesh earned poor image of being the ‘number one corrupt country in the world’ consecutively for 5 years. The military controlled caretaker government and its all powerful Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) headed by a general tried to punish mostly political leaders selectively instead of aiming at rooting out corruption from the body politic and therefore, it did not work much. More importantly, neither people like Justice Abdul Aziz, the former Chief Election Commissioner nor his associates that defrauded the Voter List were punished for their ‘unethical and immoral corruption’. Neither government officials that were responsible for rigging past elections were charge-shitted for their poor performance. Therefore, it is not unlikely that the current election officials may follow their past tradition of doctoring the elections without public awareness and transparency.

Under the circumstances how can we ‘trust’ the current the EC of a fair election? In quality control, ‘trust me, my quality is number 1’ is not enough. Instead, experts have set up verifiable, tested and transparent ‘quality control mechanism and processes’ to achieve quality products or services. Edward Deming and Jurand, the gurus of quality control therefore set up a complete process of TQM, total quality management. Their process worked well. Following their prescriptions, U. S. Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldridge created a Baldridge Award of Excellence. It has 1,000 points and these points are divided into various critical areas of quality assurance. Any company that meets those criteria is awarded Baldridge awards each year. Here process is more important. Such improved process assist in guaranteeing ‘quality product or service’ provided it is fully enforced and implemented. Neither the Election Commission nor the CTG could set up a ‘verifiable and transparent process of guaranteeing a free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election system yet in Bangladesh. Rather, their process is marred with secrecy, doubts and questionable set ups such as (1) non-withdrawal of state of emergency regulations, (2) banning of media reporting and (3) banning of cell phones. This is very sad indeed and such may deprive the nation of a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election’ in 2008. Therefore, if the EC and the CTG are sincere to hold a free, fair and credible election, they must withdraw their bans from cell phones, media coverage and emergency regulations. #

Dr Abdul Moment is Professor of Economics and Management, Boston, USA

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Create Level Playing Field for Candidates for Change in Bangladesh


WHEN WE talk about electoral democracy we would be talking about democratic practices involved in a democratic election. Included within the framework are the fundamental political values, i.e. democracy, democratic practices & democratic Institutions, the rule of law, fundamental human rights and a just & honest electoral organisation. Like other organisations established in a democracy, the electoral organisation entrusted with the power to conduct elections should completely be committed to democracy and have the will to actively promote democratic ethics.

What we see from our present political scenario? The Awami League president had alleged a conspiracy was being hatched against the December 18 parliamentary polls and said the national elections must be held on the day for transition to democracy. National elections must be held on December 18 for transition to democracy and her party want acceptable elections in a free and fair manner which will be contested by all political parties. The Awami League president stressed the need for the establishment of an effective post-election parliament through which both the elected government and the opposition will play a positive role in running the country. On the other side, the Chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) expressed her concerns that the government has failed to create a promised level-playing field for all parties to contest the election, while the election commission seems favouring a certain group to clinch power. Analysts have said the participation of both major parties is crucial to ensure peaceful voting and a smooth return to democracy after nearly two years of rule by an army-backed interim government.

It is very important that the elections should be held in keeping with the schedule on December 18 for a democratically elected government which will, in fact, reflect the wishes of the people, a foreign diplomat said. He thinks that is a vision for the future that my sense is shared by everybody in this country. Asked about the BNP’s unwillingness to contest the elections, he said the BNP must make the decision on the matter. But from his perspective as a high commissioner of a country, he has very much hope that they will have the widest possible participation in this election. Other foreign diplomats hoped that all political parties will be able to participate in the election to compete in a free and fair manner to democratically elect a government. About the BNP’s allegation of absence of a level playing field for fair polls, one foreign diplomat said it is the matter of the caretaker government to discuss with all political parties and expressed that of course, everyone in this country wants to see free and fair elections and all political parties have equal opportunities to participate and campaign for the elections

Democratic ethics have ideally been outlined by the various international conventions. The adoptions of some of the fundamental elements found in the guidelines would help to establish some kind of electoral standard which enjoys not only the broad support of the people but also most importantly the attainment of a standard that is internationally recognised. To determine where exactly we are with international standard, we would have to examine the legal framework governing democratic elections in the country. There is no ‘best’ electoral system suitable to all and no universally recognised standard attached to any one of them. The choice of electoral system needs to be made with desired goals in mind. It must be understood by all that the effect which different kinds of electoral system can promote are ultimately contextual and depend on the specific cleavages and divisions within any given society.

Choosing an electoral system is one of the most important institutional decisions for any democracy. An electoral system can help to “engineer” specific outcomes such as encouraging co-operation and accommodation in a divided society, a point very much relevant to independent Bangladesh in its infant stage by which cleavages and divisions are reduced significantly through co-operation and accommodation among the society divided with race, religion, culture as well as geopolitical environment at that particular point of time. The International Handbook on electoral system specifically mentioned that in the choice of an electoral system an important consideration is whether a country is sharply divided along political, religious, ethnic or other lines and whether minorities are, in the process, going to be properly and equitably represented in the political system.

The choice of the electoral system within the context of a particular country can make a significant positive or negative impact on the electoral fortunes of the various political contenders. As far as we are concerned the simple system chosen had seen the negative impact on parties which failed to gain popularity (in term of seats obtained) and had even disappeared from the political scene. On the other hand there are parties whose leaders have been far sighted enough to undertake policy of accommodation and co-operation and had continued to gain seats (and power) devoid of any prospect of being wiped out of the political scene at all. In spite of these difficulties the EC has been in complete control and has done very well in vital areas pertaining to the actual electoral conduct and process, e.g. Nomination, Poll, the Count and the pronouncement of results. Complete transparency has been achieved in those areas even though in carrying out those functions the EC has to rely on the honesty and impartiality of government officials. In general government officials, in terms of accountability, owe their loyalty to the government of the day.

Earning the confidence of the people is considered the most challenging task for the Commission. So far so good. For the past general elections we have managed to earn that credit. On the other hand it is also a completely challenging task for the Commission to earn and maintain the confidence of the opposition parties especially when all the time they harbour a sense of complete distrust for the government and collaterally for the Commission. Ironically what ever the Commission does has always’ been quaintly seen as working towards maintaining favourable conditions for the government and of course for the present caretaker government in power. What is considered completely fair sometimes are pronounced as unfair and the built-in advantages enjoyed by the party in power and a complete manipulation of those advantages would during critical time completely wipe out any shred of confidence they may have over the whole system and the agency in charge.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. What is really important to our nation is the necessary components in the law which will enhance the credibility of and public confidence in the elections. The legitimacy of the government established under the system should not at all be subject to any form of post election outcry and examinations.How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when with the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can EC earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

I believe that all aspects of the electoral Commissions’ establishment, composition, status and functions are relevant to the question of transparency in the electoral process. In term of the International standards and guideline, the legal framework should require that the Commission be established and should operate in a manner that ensures the independent and impartial administration of elections.As for the electoral management system we are quite close to the internationally recognised electoral standards. In Bangladesh the legal framework on election will provide the important elements for the establishment a strong electoral management process and mechanism but yet the overall framework clearly does not provide sufficient rooms for the Commission to manoeuvre and place itself completely in a commanding position to set up a completely level playing field during the election period.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when in terms of the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can we earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

When we talk about democratic electoral process, we always hear people mentioning about the need for a level playing field. The expression “level playing field, according to electoral guidelines required the fair application of the following to all political parties.

• All rules and regulations
• Freedom to campaign by all means available (Democratic electoral campaign)
• Access to the state owned media to explain program to electorate
• Free to consult the election management team (Access to Electoral Commission)
• Can participate, where necessary, in election preparatory process, or
• Can participate in observing that all procedures are being properly applied.

Level playing field is a necessary ingredient of a free and fair election although no one with enough experience in the conduct of election will ever subscribe to the view that an absolute equality can be achieved between the contending parties.

Built in advantages enjoyed by the party in power in Bangladesh are many, including the right to call the shots, publicity over policy announcements and most of other public related exposures, including the support the ruling party may enjoy from a large number of privately owned media bodies which consider as being the major obstacles to the establishment of a playing field considered level in our election

Election is a festival of democracy. It fosters an inclusive state, democracy rooted in popular sovereignty and sustainable peace and tests the competitive strength of political parties and leaders through program and ideologies. In this context, it is important for the Nepalese press to keep the hope of citizens alive and kicking by serving key roles in democratic initiatives, democratic consolidation, democratic expansion and democratic deepening. Truly independent press spreads democratic ideology and plays an important role in the maintenance of the democratic system. It signifies a program of public rationality and a voice of the voiceless.

Since print and electronic media are the prime channels of transmitting electoral messages, politics in Bangladesh will be played out increasingly in communicative space. Press can contribute to ease the nation's transition process by creating election-friendly environment, democratising the public sphere and legitimising political initiatives. In Bangladesh, politicians talk more to the press than among themselves. It is the press that shapes their overall cognitive understanding about politics. A strong identification of citizens with political parties steered by the press provides greater motivation to vote and engage in politics. But, party is only a part of society, not the whole. Press can play an important role to make democracy for everybody by reaching to even the passive and alienated populace and sensitising them on public questions. By providing critical information responsible press nurtures an informed society capable of making vital choices in the election process and contributing towards the emancipatory potential of rationality embodied in participatory democracy. #

Gopal Sengupta is a freelance writer based in Canada who can be reached at: