Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bangladesh's Generals Relent

Read this story from Chicago Tribune:

When Bangladesh's military took power in a coup early last year, its leaders promised a return to democratic rule by 2008. That's a promise often made, but rarely kept, when military leaders wrest power from civilians. Think Pakistan, where Gen. Pervez Musharraf staged a bloodless coup in 1999, made a similar vow, but hung around as president for eight years.

Remarkably enough, it looks like Bangladesh's military will keep its promise. Bangladeshis will go to the polls on Dec. 29. The military, led by Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, will step aside.

The Bangladeshi coup was driven by a desire to clean up corruption that has long plagued the country. Things came to a head in January 2007 when Bangladeshis took to the streets of Dhaka to protest the corrupt rule of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh National Party.

When riots broke out between supporters of the Bangladesh National Party and the rival Awami League, the military intervened to prevent further bloodshed in the capital.

What followed was a heavy-handed effort by the military to clean up the country. Business people who were suspected of illegal activity were jailed. Courts were told to handle cases quickly. Zia and former Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed, who leads the Awami League, were exiled. But problems persisted. Bangladesh is still plagued by inflation, unemployment and corruption.

Last year, Bangladesh ranked 156th among 160 nations in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, keeping company with Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This year, Bangladesh rose all the way to . . . 147th.

There isn't much good news, but there is this: Election plans are proceeding, despite threats from extremists to disrupt them. The army will deploy troops across the country until Dec. 31, two days after voting ends.

"Troops will be posted at least 200 meters away from the [voting] centers to ensure voters execute their franchise without fear and intimidation," Moeen told reporters. Francesc Vendrell, a United Nations official sent to oversee the vote, told Reuters, "Chances of fair and free elections are much higher than two years ago."

The elections may be free and fair, but they probably won't be inspiring. The two main candidates are Zia and Hasina, back from exile. It's too bad that Bangladeshi citizens don't have better choices than these two, who have battled each other for power since 1991.

Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. It needs better leaders. The caretaker military government wasn't able to deliver that.

But by recognizing the limits of its power, stepping aside and returning Bangladesh to democratic rule, the military at least returned to citizens the opportunity to demand better of their government.

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