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Bangladesh: Moving Towards or Away from Democracy?

The promise of Bangladesh's caretaker government, which is backed by the army, to cleanse competitive politics of corruption and abuse has been widely welcomed. But is the army settling in for a long haul or is there a timetable for restoration of democratic activity? On that there are worries and misgivings.

Bangladesh: Moving Towards or Away from Democracy?


Economic and Political WeeklyApril 14, 20071330president had been voted in by the BNP.And last autumn, explains Hossain, theBNP “suddenly produced an electoralregister with 93 million voters, not 73million as five years before…so it waspalpably obvious it was a bogus list so anyresidue of confidence disappeared and theelectoral commission lost all credibility.”A State of EmergencyAs violent street protests and strikescontinued through 2006, the Awami Leagueannounced it would boycott the elections.The international community was also start-ing to express its concerns – on January10, the European Union announced it wouldbe withdrawing its election monitors andthat the EU would re-assess the full rangeof its relations with Bangladesh if the elec-tions went ahead.Debapriya Bhattacharya, executivedirectorof the Centre for Policy Dialogue,a Bangladeshi think tank, says that: “a one-sided election on January 22 was about tobe bulldozed through…we saw the resultswere predetermined and the outgoinggovernment was going to give itself an-other five years and then hold on by othermeans.” He also admits that: “There wasa fear that the army would be used by them[the BNP] to abet them in this usurpingof power. But I think the army saw the light– and patriotism and a sense of self-pres-ervation must have helped.”Some observers see the hand of the USin developments – presumed to be worriedat the instability and the potential growthin violent Islamist activities already visiblesince a bombing campaign in 2005. In theday or two before the state of emergency,theUnited Nations had apparently threatenedto delist the Bangladeshi army from UNpeacekeeping duties – a rather lucrativeand prestigious occupation. More than onewestern observer suggests this was a trigger,or perhaps an excuse, for the army to pushthe president to call the state of emergency.From January 11, the new military-backed caretaker government started workunder the leadership of former Bangladeshicentral bank governor – and one time WorldBank official – Fakhurddin Ahmed, to-gether with 10 other “technocratic” cabi-net appointees. In the subsequent threemonths, the government – and military –embarked on a major anti-corruption cam-paign, arresting around 1,00,000 people,including many senior party political fig-ures, and other leading professional andofficial actors. Not least among these wasthe son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman,accused of major corruption, with manysaying he effectively ran a parallel govern-ment. Many leading Awami Leaguefigureshave also been arrested. SheikhHasina was by the start of April on a“private” visit to the US with many specu-lating both whether she will come back andwhether Khaleda Zia may also be “encour-aged” to leave the country.Journalist Badrul Ahman thinks it isimportant for the political parties to restruc-ture “and to get out of the grips of familiesanddynasties. If Sheikh Hasinadoes not comeback then that will suggest maybe we aregoing in for some radical changes.” Depar-ture of the “two begums” many say, wouldbe a very positive signal. Commentatorsalsoemphasise that the focus on anti-corruptionhas been welcomed bythepublic. Ahsansays: “Dealing with corruption hasstrucka chord. So far people seem pretty satis-fied.” He suggests that if people donotlikethe direction the country is going, theirmood will get expressed: “Bengalis havea history of losing patience politically.”Think tank director, Hossain ZillurRahman makes a similar point: “If thecurrent government goes very much againstthe electorate in certain policies, you wouldimmediately see a transformation of thesituation and you would see much lesseaseof action; there is a tacit endorsementat moment.” Debapriya Bhattacharya toothinks that those who say the public willbecome restless in three months “are in-dulging in wishful thinking”. He goes on:“The government is unelected but stillverypopular – it will have to renew itslegitimacy everyday with good work andwithout big mistakes.”Questions RemainEven so, the rapid and aggressive movein the first three months to demolish thou-sands of illegal roadside and pavementbusinesses and slum homes, leaving peoplehomeless and/or penniless, is seen by manyasan excessive approach to anti-corruptionand one hurting the poorest rather thanthose higher up the corruption change.And the hanging of six Islamist militants,at the end of March (convicted of a seriesof bombings that took place in 2005), whilewelcomed by many, was also criticised forthe haste with which it was carried out andthe failure to follow through on informa-tion the six have supposedly given to policeof senior political and professional namesinvolved in masterminding their activities.Others also point to corruption in defencedeals and question whether the military canreally differentiate itself as not part of thecorrupt previous system. Moreover, manyadmit there is an open question as to whetherthe military will withdraw from its currentincreasingly powerful political role as andwhen the caretaker government moves torestore democracy, or whether it will geta taste for political power, Pakistan-style.Badrul Ahman argues that: “The armedforces are doing a pretty good job, hope-fully they will not come in but stand behindand support the government. There couldHimal (9 x 2)

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