Monday, December 3, 2007

Economist Intelligence Unit on Bangladesh's Political Outlook

Country Report - Main report: December 1st 2007

Outlook for 2008-09: Domestic politics

The political scene will remain unsettled for much of the forecast period. Preparations for the next parliamentary election are under way, overseen by the Election Commission and the military. The commission faces a busy timetable in 2008: it hopes to hold civic elections in five cities by March, and to finalise the electoral register in July before setting a date for the parliamentary poll, probably in October. The immediate task for the Election Commission is to ensure that the electoral register is ready for all five city corporation polls by January. The logistics of holding a parliamentary election in October could be complicated by inclement weather. This year, heavier than normal monsoon rains killed hundreds of people and displaced 10m during July-September, while in November thousands more were killed by Cyclone Sidr. Bangladesh is vulnerable to cyclones, which occur during March-May and September-December. A repeat of such weather patterns in 2008 could force millions of voters to seek temporary accommodation, making it difficult for the Election Commission to maintain accurate records.

It is not clear whether the government will lift the state of emergency before the civic polls, but the Economist Intelligence Unit expects emergency rule to continue until the parliamentary election. This is primarily because of the caretaker government's determination to implement sweeping reforms to the electoral process before the poll. The government is currently drafting a proposal for amendments to the existing city corporation and municipality laws to bar the same person from becoming a representative in parliament as well as on a local government body. It has already taken steps to ban politicians convicted of a criminal offence from taking part in the forthcoming parliamentary poll. The next task is to persuade the main political parties to hold leadership elections—for the first time for decades—and to introduce a new electoral register. However, the government's reluctance to lift the state of emergency, and the growing influence of the army (particularly in roles usually reserved for civilians), will heighten fears of a return to full military rule. Besides maintaining law and order, military officials are also responsible for vital administrative tasks, such as the preparation of voter identity cards.

Once preparations for the next election and the associated electoral reforms have been completed, the caretaker government will be able to claim that is has reinforced the electoral process. What it will not be able to do, however, is to move the country away from a two-party political system. Political opinion is so strongly polarised in Bangladesh that the parliamentary contest will again pit the Awami League against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Mohammad Yunus, a Nobel peace prize winner and the founder of a microcredit provider, Grameen Bank, tried to offer a credible alternative to the two main political parties by forming his own party in February 2007. However, citing the lack of a support base for the new party, he abandoned his plan in April. The lifting of a ban on indoor political meetings is unlikely to tempt Professor Yunus back into politics, partly because of his reluctance to make the compromises required in order to obtain the necessary support from the army.

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