An inauspicious rebirth for parliamentary democracy
PARLIAMENT in Dhaka was this week restored to its intended use; parliamentarians, sadly, returned to their old abuses. A makeshift prison for much of the two years, ending in December 2008, that Bangladesh was ruled by an army-backed interim government, the parliament complex housed the leaders of the two big political parties: Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
On January 25th, however, a month after the league won a general election by a landslide, parliament reconvened for the first time. True to old form, the opposition BNP walked out in protest. The reason was bizarre: it claimed that the president, Iajuddin Ahmed—whom the BNP had picked in late 2006 as the head of a caretaker government to oversee (and rig) an election due in January 2007—had violated the constitution by failing to hold the vote on time. Three days later, it walked out again, miffed at seating arrangements.
On January 22nd the league had won another landslide victory; this time in elections in the country’s 481 upazilas (subdistricts). Candidates it backed won more than two-thirds of the seats. But unlike the general election, these polls were dodgy. Stuffing of ballot boxes, “capturing” of polling booths and voter intimidation were rife. Three people were killed, 150 injured. Observers blamed both parties.
Both BNP and AL governments have failed to hold local elections, preferring to grant MPs complete control over lucrative development spending in their fiefs. The interim government forced the parties to hold them in the hope of reforming the highly centralised political structure.
The new AL government presents itself as the agent of “change”. But its policies mostly rely on institutional improvements made by the interim regime: an effective Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC); an independent Election Commission and judiciary; and the reform of the country’s hugely inefficient public sector. The government is also to ratify most of the laws made by the interim government (otherwise, doubt might be cast on the validity of the election it won). But the fear is that it and the BNP will shake off the straitjacket designed to prevent their return to their past confrontational excesses.
Mercifully for the new government, the impact of the global economic downturn has so far been limited. The capital account is in effect closed, which has proved a blessing. But the economy is built on clothing exports, and remittances from the Gulf. Both will inevitably suffer. The government has vowed to reduce the number of poor people from 65m to 45m during its five-year term, tackle inflation, terrorism and a crippling power crisis, and pursue better relations with India, its huge, economically important neighbour. This month it slashed fertiliser prices by half, cut the price of diesel, and revived powers to fix the prices of essential commodities.
The government’s other ambitious project is the prosecution of those accused of war crimes during the war of independence in 1971. Many of the alleged perpetrators are still active in politics, mostly as members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a large Islamist party that did badly in the election. The interim government did not pursue war crimes, in part because of the feared economic ramifications: Saudi Arabia, a big source of remittances, objects to trials. But Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the murdered independence leader, said this week that she was “pledge-bound” to bring war criminals to justice.