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Back to Square One in Bangladesh

The military-backed caretaker government and the army are poised to retreat from the scene after having achieved very few of the objectives they set for themselves in January 2007. In the months remaining until elections are held in December 2008, the two would like to make permanent the changes they have brought about in public institutions and protect themselves from possible prosecution by a future government. Neither is going to be easy. There have been no major reforms within the two leading political parties, so there is the very real possibility of a dysfunctional political order returning to haunt Bangladesh after the elections, whoever may form the government in Dhaka.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAseptember 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Back to Square One in BangladeshZafar Sobhan The military-backed caretaker government and the army are poised to retreat from the scene after having achieved very few of the objectives they set for themselves in January 2007. In the months remaining until elections are held in December 2008, the two would like to make permanent the changes they have brought about in public institutions and protect themselves from possible prosecution by a future government. Neither is going to be easy. There have been no major reforms within the two leading political parties, so there is the very real possibility of a dysfunctional political order returning to haunt Bangladesh after the elections, whoever may form the government in Dhaka. Zafar Sobhan (zsobhan@hotmail.com) is op-ed editor,The Daily Star, Dhaka. Twenty months since its takeover on January 11, 2007, the military-backed caretaker government finally seems to have thrown in the towel. Thus comes to an apparent end the ambitious move to remake the politics of the country.When the army took over and installed a new caretaker government headed by technocrat Fakhruddin Ahmed, its first order of business was an anti-corruption drive. However, the drive, which was headed and coordinated by serving and retired military personnel, quickly ran into trouble because of numerous due process and fundamental rights violations and the selective nature of the corruption prosecutions. At the heart of the drive was not the elimination of corruption, but an attempt to break-up the two main political parties in the country, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in 1991, and which were held responsible for the dys-functional nature of the country’s demo-cratic and political culture. Minus Two Formula Initially, in addition to high-profile arrests of senior AL andBNP leaders as well as those of countless lower-level party workers and activists, strenuous attempts were made to usher the two party leaders and former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, into exile. Bur once it became clear that neither of the former prime ministers were willing to enter into volun-tary self-exile, the next step was to include them in the prosecutions and to arrest them, under the Emergency Powers Act that had been imposed shortly after the takeover, and to keep them incarcerated without bail, pending the outcome of the cases against them. With the two former prime ministers in jail, the authorities clearly hoped that their parties would abandon them and sign on to the army’s agenda for reform. However, they underestimated the hold the two leaders had over their respective parties, and ultimately were unable to prise the parties away from their com-mand and into more reformist or pliable (depending on how one wishes to look at it) hands. Clock Ticking For the government, time was always of the essence. The caretaker government announced that it would hold elections no later than December 2008. Two years is a long-time to live with a non-democratic government and suspension of fundamen-tal rights under a state of emergency. It is also unlikely that either the general public or the international community would tolerate any further delay in holding elec-tions, which had originally been scheduled for January 2007. In addition, the 11-person caretaker government was, unsurprisingly, finding that governing the country was no easy task. In its tenure it has had to face floods, a cyclone, and double-digit inflation caused by the rise in global food and oil prices. All told, the government has, in fact, done a creditable job under extremely trying circumstances, but, without a mandate to take important policy decisions, two years provided the absolute outer limit of its ability to govern the country effectively. However, the price the AL andBNP demanded for participation in the Decem-ber polls was the release of their leaders. Folding Its Hands The army had the option of playing hard-ball and toughing it out in the hopes that the parties would either split, or capitulate and take part in the elections, even in the absence of their two leaders. But in the end, it was the army which capitulated and folded its hands. Ultimately, the army decided that it was neither prepared to counter the country-wide demon-strations that would doubtless have resulted from keeping the two leaders incarcerated, nor was there much support within the cantonment for a full military
LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW september 27, 20089takeover if the political partiescontinued to refuse to go along.That being the case, when push came to shove, the army did not really have too many options but to release Hasina and Khaleda and to start the long and painful process of unravelling all that had been wrought in the previous year and a half in an effort to bring both parties to the table. Options One option for the army would have been to enter into an arrangement with one of the two parties, and after Hasina was released on medical parole in June, it seemed as though a tacit agreement might have been reached between the AL and the army. In many ways such an arrangement would have made sense in that if the army had to choose one of the two parties to do business with, theAL was the obvious choice given the fact that theBNP, which had formed the last elected government, was, of the two, by far the more corrupt and compromised. In addition, since the BNP had suffered more during the anti-corruption campaign and had been in the driving seat prior to the military take-over, the authorities had good reason to fear retribution at their hands if they returned to power. The problem with this scenario, however, was that the army traditionally has always had strained relations with the AL and the feeling among pro-BNP elements in the cantonment was that they had certainly not stuck their necks out the past year and a half merely so that Hasina could be the next prime minister. Thus was the olive branch held out to the BNP as well, in the hope that the two parties could operate as a check on one another’s excesses. But for the BNP the price of participa-tion in the elections was higher. The party demanded the release of their leader, and Khaleda made it clear that she would not come out of jail unless her son, Tarique, was also released. Complicating the situa-tion were reports that Tarique’s health was failing due to torture in custody, thus creating sympathy for the man who not long ago had been the poster child for thecorruption and misrule of the BNP government. In the end, the army caved in. Tarique was released on bail on Sep-tember 3 and is reportedly now in London for medical treatment. Khaleda was re-leased a week later. Ceasefire In the three months remaining before the elections must be held, the army and the caretaker government still have a few items remaining on their agenda. The first and most important, from their point of view, is to ensure that the actions of the caretaker tenure are ratified by the incoming parliament and that both government and army receive immunity from prosecution for their acts. Given how crucial this is to their very survival, this is the one agenda item for which the army will go to the wall and regard as non-negotiable. Next is to ensure that the anti-corruption drive and the reforms in public institu-tions that have been cornerstones of the caretaker government’s raison d’etre are not rolled back once an elected govern-ment is in place. However, it does not seem as though they have any way to ensureeither of these and thus to what extent the reforms or the anti-corruption drive are continued with is in the hands of whoever comes to power following the December elections. The immediate issue is local govern-ment polls, which the current government would like to hold before the national polls, but which are being resisted by the AL andBNP. Again, it seems as though neither the army nor the govern-ment has any cards left to play, and so capitulation on this issue is also likely to be imminent. Endgame It seems, therefore, that there are no more impediments to the December elections that will bring one of the two parties back to power. It seems unlikely, at this stage, that the army has anything further up its sleeve, and is looking for anything more than an orderly exit with its honour intact. The army is attempting to negotiate a compromise with theAL and the BNP that would allow for a coalition government tobe formed after the election. This will only work if neither party gets an absolute majority of 151 seats in parliament, and, in any event, one cannot see either Hasina or Khaleda voluntarily working under theother or the two parties burying the hatchet and working together in a coali-tion government. However, the electoral rolls have been cleaned up (one of the lasting achieve-ments of the caretaker government) and if law and order is maintained, there is no reason why we cannot have free and fair elections. But who will win and how they will productively coexist with the opposition in the aftermath and what the long-term relationship between the elected government and the army might be remain open questions. There is no reason to believe that we will not re-vert back to our dysfunctional political culture, and the culture of immunity seems like it will get stronger with the likely release of all those charged with (and even convicted of) corruption after elections are held. In recently concluded city council elections it was noticeable that the non-AL andBNP candidates did poorly. In addition, the big parties insisted on run-ning even candidates with serious and credible allegations against them, almost all of whom did well. The AL mayor of Sylhet, for instance, ran from jail and romped home. It thus seems fair to say that the evidence suggests that the political parties have learned nothing and that the signs for a healthier political order in the future are not promising. In many ways it still seems as though things are where they were, more or less, two years ago. In other words, we are back to square one. WORKSHOP MPISSR, Ujjain is organising an ICSSR sponsored Workshop on Computer Applications in Social Sciences from January 7 to 16, 2009. Those interested may download the Application-form and Brochure from our website: www.mpissr.org (Announcements).

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