Another Beginning

Bangladesh has not just survived the last two years of nondemocratic rule, but it has seen democracy return fundamentally strengthened. A democraticallyelected government, with the Awami League in a commanding position, is now in place. The army has not only voluntarily relinquished power but has left the polity in better shape. Empowered with a lot of hope Sheikh Hasina, the AL leader and the new prime minister, is expected to deliver.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAjanuary 17, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Another BeginningZafar SobhanBangladesh has not just survived the last two years of non-democratic rule, but it has seen democracy return fundamentally strengthened. A democratically-elected government, with the Awami League in a commanding position, is now in place. The army has not only voluntarily relinquished power but has left the polity in better shape. Empowered with a lot of hope Sheikh Hasina, the AL leader and the new prime minister, is expected to deliver.Zafar Sobhan (zsobhan@hotmail.com) is op-ed editor,The Daily Star, Dhaka.In the final analysis, one would have to say that the military-backed interim government that has been running Bangladesh for the past two years delivered.The two years of interim government rule were an extraordinary time in Bang-ladesh’s history. Much ink has been spilled, and much more will be in the future, as to whether the two-year non-democratic interregnum was necessary or warranted, but it is my sense that when the dust has settled and a final accounting made we will find that politics in Bangladesh has changed forever.Politics did not change as much as the interim government and its backers in the cantonment (and indeed, perhaps, the population at large) had hoped. In the end, there has been no new political party or third force that has arisen to challenge the status quo. Neither the Awami League (AL) nor the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appear fundamentally reformed. Both party leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, remain where they were, fully in control of their respective parties.Nevertheless, the two-year interim government period has wrought a funda-mental shift in the political landscape that has been, for the most part, an improve-ment over where things were before, and the future for Bangladesh, as a result, is far more hopeful than at any time since the restoration of democracy in 1991.Interim Government RecordNow is a good time to examine the record of the interim government and to see where it has left us after two years in office. In counterpoint to the vocal opposi-tion that it faced from the urban middle and upper-middle classes, who were typi-cally in thrall to one party or the other, the interim government remained reasonably popular with the average citizen and performed very creditably during the course of its two years in office.Growth has remained steady. The national airline, Bangladesh Biman, is in the black. Barapukuria coalmine is oper-ating profitably for the first time in history, and a whole host of other state-run enter-prises are operating with an efficiency and competence never seen before. Foreign exchange reserves are healthy. The taka is in good shape. Exports are booming.Quietly, a lot of progress has been made when it comes to the much-needed reform of previously corruption-ridden and mori-bund public institutions such as the Public Services Commission, the Regulatory Reforms Commission, the Better Business Forum, the University Grants Commission, etc. The Anti-Corruption Commission, even though it has not been able to put to-gether watertight cases in many instances and may yet be forced to let many notori-ous political leaders walk free, has, never-theless, been completely revamped and reinvigorated. There is little doubt that going forward it will be able to operate as a powerful tool to check official wrong-doing and ensure good governance. It is true that prices show a marked in-crease from two years ago, and that, as a result, the level of poverty has risen. But this rise in prices is largely a result of a trans-national inflationary trend and the public seems to understand that the government was not to blame. Certainly, the interim government has done a commendable job keeping the price of essentials within reach, and, by all accounts, has handled the situa-tion as well could have been hoped for.Similarly, now that the final report card is being prepared and we have a democrat-ically-elected government in place, people are willing to acknowledge that the interim government’s handling of the floods and cyclone that battered Bangladesh during its tenure in office was reasonably efficient. ElectionsAt the end of the day, however, the most important item on the interim govern-ment’s agenda was the holding of credible elections within the two-year time period promised. And this has been, without question, the interim government’s principal achievement. The effort that went into the creation of an 80 million
LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW january 17, 20099strong voter list, comparable in accuracy to any in the world, the redistricting, the cleaning up of the Election Commission (EC), the amendment of the election laws – all will have positive repercussions long beyond the recently concluded election. No one seriously disputes the results, and pre-election and post-election polling confirms conclusively that the elections were free and fair and that the results accurately reflect the will of the voters. Most significantly, there is no reason why the EC cannot continue functioning at such a high level in the future.The sceptics said that the army and technocrats could not do it. They said that the army wanted to cling on to power and would never relinquish it voluntarily. But, in reality, the army has done the previ-ously unthinkable. They have done what they said they were going to do. Not only have they voluntarily relinquished power, they have instituted needed reforms, and left the polity better and healthier than when they came in.PrognosisPolitics in Bangladesh will never be the same again. Corruption will continue to exist, but the all-pervasive and systematic corruption is now a thing of the past. Today, the media is more vigilant and the public has been educated and sensitised on this issue. The public simply will not stand for this kind of criminality any more. No longer will politicians and gov-ernment officials be able to steal with im-punity from the public coffers or exercise absolute power. What the events of the past two years, culminating in the elec-tions, have taught us is that, for the first time in living memory, there are conse-quences for official wrongdoing.The sea-change also applies to the operation of public institutions and the reforms that have been put in place there and in the political system. A newly-aware and well-informed electorate will itself now be the watchdog to ensure that we do not slip back to the bad old days. No more will they be content to live under the tyranny of the political parties.In short, the past two years seem to have had a salutary impact on the national con-sciousness, and the long-term repercus-sions for the country seem very positive.Questions do remain about the role of the army and whether it will continue to exert influence from behind the scenes. The early indications are that the army’s return to the barracks is genuine and that it has little interest in continuing to manage the affairs of the state.One presumes that there is a deal in place with the incoming government to en-sure ratification of all laws and ordinances passed over the last two years, especially to ensure that neither the interim government nor the state of emergency are deemed to be illegitimate or unconstitutional, and that both the government and the armed forces will receive immunity for their actions.Beyond this, there is little evidence that the army wants anything else. Prior to the election there was much conjecture that the army would wish to retain its pre- eminence in national security and counter-terrorism and I doubt that there would be much opposition within the new govern-ment for such an arrangement It is possible that the army will want to retain a hold on matters such as law and order and even insist on a greater say in foreign affairs. However there is no evidence of this to date. In addition, the notion that if the political parties revert back to their sponsorship of criminality, the fact that the army is waiting in the wings to stamp this out is one that is met with a general approval. There is no indication that the army wishes to have any say on economic issues.Going ForwardThe election results were remarkable. The pre-election polls suggested a healthy AL victory, but no one predicted 230 seats for the party alone or 262 for the alliance it led.The decimation of the BNP was a long time coming. The party’s last tenure in government from 2001 to 2006 had been shambolic, and had there been fair elec-tions held in 2007, as originally scheduled, they would have been wiped out. It is interesting to note that two years did nothing to increase their acceptability to the public. Now the party must rebuild. It still commands the loyalty of a significant percentage of the population, and certain-ly there will always exist in Bangladesh a constituency for the party’s right-of- centre, nationalist message.TheBNP’s coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is also in an interesting position. It did much worse than before and seem unable to articulate any kind of vision for the country. If this election marks the be-ginning of the end of the Jamaat as a seri-ous force in Bangladeshi politics or an estrangement between them and theBNP, it could have lasting consequences.Finally, what does all this mean for the AL? The party by itself is in possession of a commanding 230 seats, but, in the final analysis, everything depends on perfor-mance. After all, the BNP-led alliance had a two-thirds majority in the 2001 elec-tions. But there is no question that this is a great opportunity for the AL. If it delivers then it might well precipitate a fracturing of the opposition. However, if the AL does poorly, then no one should be surprised to seeBNP, and even the Jamaat, come roar-ing back in five years.This is an exciting time for the country. Bangladesh has not just survived the last two years of non-democratic rule, but democracy has returned fundamentally strengthened and improved.Archives (1966-1998) EPW is pleased to offer to its readers digitised pages of the journal from the years 1966-98.The archives are hosted at the EPW web site. Please see “Archives 1966-1998” on the home page.The address is:http://epw.in/epw/user/library.jsp?archive=trueThese archives are available to all subscribers of EPW. They are hosted on a separate page and in a format different from the post-1999 archives.The pages for all the volumes for 1989-1998 are now available.Gradually, working backwards pages of all issues from 1966 onwards will be accessible by 31 March 2009. Readers are encouraged to read the detailed description of and introduction to the 1966-98 archives on the opening page of this section on the web site.Access to these archives is restricted to print/web subscribers of EPW.Please do subscribe to the journal to access these archives.

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