Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rebirth of democracy in Bangladesh

Read a news analysis by S.N.M. Abdi of South China Morning Post on Bangladesh's election, published today.

He didn't realise it, but Bangladesh military chief Moeen Uddin Ahmed let the cat out of the bag ahead of the country's long-awaited general election on Monday.

In a televised address to the nation on December 16, barely 24 hours before a two-year state of emergency was lifted, paving the way for the poll, General Ahmed blurted out: "The Bangladesh army, playing a great peacekeeping role under the United Nations command, is not eager to assume a political role. Rather, we would like to see Bangladesh achieve a democratic government through a fair and credible election."

The moot question is: would the army still have desisted from assuming a "political role" and welcomed the return of parliamentary democracy if there were no lucrative peacekeeping duties to perform in trouble spots like the Congo and Lebanon?
Some analysts believe that the army would have throttled democracy and grabbed power if the international community, particularly the US, European Union and Japan, had not warned the generals that the consequence would be the end of lucrative UN peacekeeping assignments.

It's no secret that remittances from the UN are the economic lifeline for the defence forces in this desperately poor Muslim country, where most of the 150 million people live on less than US$1 a day. The military leadership is acutely aware that it must not jeopardise this cash cow.

But even as General Ahmed pledged to respect the outcome of parliamentary elections after two years of army-backed caretaker government, International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, ominously warned that whoever won on Monday would have to "contend with an army that wants a greater say in politics".

J. K. Dutt, a military expert at Calcutta's Jadavpur University, said the army's role in the caretaker government had "whetted its appetite for politics".
"Post-election, it will try to test the nerves of the new regime by demanding big pay hikes and a bigger military budget to feather its nest," he said.
"But it's unlikely to try to overthrow an elected government in the foreseeable future for fear of being internationally censured and losing financially rewarding UN peacekeeping assignments.

"The army's nuisance value will remain intact, though. It might not seize power but it will keep the government on tenterhooks. Due to historical reasons, it's incapable of turning into a completely apolitical instrument of state, like the Indian army, for instance."

Election commissioner Shakawat Hossain announced on December 17 - the day the state of emergency was lifted - that Bangladesh's 80 million voters would elect new members to the country's 345-strong parliament, or Jatiya Sangsad, on December 29, giving political parties less than a fortnight to campaign. Votes will be cast at 35,000 booths manned by 300,000 security personnel.

Despite the short notice, the election is crucial for Bangladesh's democracy. It is seven years since Bangladeshis last went to the polls. Elections scheduled for January 2007 were cancelled by a peculiar Bangladeshi invention - a caretaker government.

Under Bangladeshi law, the incumbent government must resign before an election is held and a neutral, caretaker government takes over and assumes responsibility for conducting a fair and impartial poll. But, after the caretaker government took charge in late 2006, the two main parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former prime minister Khaleda Zia and the Awami League (AL) led by Hasina Wajed, another former premier, began trading accusations and unleashed months of street violence which killed dozens of people.

In response to the violence, the caretaker government, headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank chairman, imposed a state of emergency with the army's blessing.
Not only were elections cancelled, but political rallies were outlawed, trade union activities banned and the media censored.

There was a silver lining, however. General Ahmed promised to hand power to an elected government by January 2009 at the latest. And he seems to have kept his word.

The interim administration launched a fight against corruption, targeting members of Zia's family and many of her BNP ministers as well as Hasina, business leaders, senior civil servants and media owners. The crackdown, which had tacit backing from the international community, stripped political parties of their powerful and violent student wings, which would go on the rampage on the slightest pretext, bringing the capital, Dhaka, to a standstill.
The government also broke the stranglehold on power of Zia and Hasina - the two women leaders who have alternated as prime minister since 1991 and dominated politics for two decades.

Aside from presiding over a culture of graft and bribery which led the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, Transparency International, to brand Bangladesh one of the most corrupt nations in the world, the two rivals did little to solve the country's pressing problems of poverty and illiteracy.

The two women, known as the "battling begums", were imprisoned and tried by a special anti-corruption commission for amassing unaccounted wealth. To pile pressure on Zia, her two sons, Arafat Rahman and Tareque Rahman - the latter seen as Zia's political successor - were also jailed. Both have now left the country.
Attempts to send the two leaders into exile failed and, as the deadline for holding elections neared, they were granted bail on medical grounds and allowed to resume political activities. They are again top contenders in the coming poll.

Analysts say that, while the caretaker government failed to remove them from the political scene, it did manage to delete 12 million fake voters from the electoral rolls.

The 80 million genuine voters have been provided photo identity cards to eliminate fraud - an administrative feat that led defeated US presidential candidate John McCain to predict that Monday's election would be the "fairest in the entire world". Senator McCain paid the compliment during a brief visit to Dhaka - his first foreign trip since losing to Barack Obama last month. Senator McCain's adopted teenage daughter, Bridget, was born in Bangladesh.

Last week, as the BNP and AL formally kicked off their election campaign, Dhaka's leading English newspaper, the Daily Star, urged both parties to display "maturity", "responsibility" and "patriotism".

"Now that the parties are firmly settled in the election groove, they should play their part in steering the nation to its cherished goal for attaining a truly democratic order," the paper said in an editorial.

Hasina, who is favoured to win, has promised economic growth, increased food production and new measures to curb corruption, and has pledged to suppress Islamic extremism and improve governance.
"The forthcoming parliamentary elections have created an opportunity for the re-establishment of democracy and inspired hopes for rapid socio-economic development," she said.

Her AL party has more than a dozen political allies, including the Jatiya Party, headed by former military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad.
Her adversary, Zia, heads a four-party alliance that includes the country's main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP's election manifesto gives priority to boosting the economy, reducing poverty by creating jobs and wooing domestic and foreign investors. It also includes an "integrated anti-terrorism and anti-militancy policy with participation of neighbouring countries".

The two rivals are also pandering to religious sentiments to woo voters. Hasina, known for her secular credentials, has declared that she will not pass laws that go against Islam or traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, while Zia is projecting herself as a champion of Islamic values. Taking their cue, smaller parties, too, have promised to revoke laws deemed anti-Islamic and introduce a law banning blasphemy.
However, after several meetings with Hasina and Zia, US ambassador James Moriarty told journalists that the election would be "transformational - reinforcing democracy, development, and the denial of space to terrorism".

Bangladesh Political Science Association chairman Ataur Rahman said: "The election looks like it will be free, fair and credible with major parties taking part and the interim government looking pretty serious to keep their commitment to return the country to democracy."

Other analysts are not so sure.

"If the elections are not free and fair, if there is evidence of electoral malpractices, or if there are attempts to influence the outcome of the elections through underhand means, then I am afraid that Bangladesh will be in for a long spell of political instability," said Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University political scientist and neutral poll observer.

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