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New Game in Bangladesh

Amidst the threat of chaos and a bloodbath on the streets of Bangladesh, the army backing for a new caretaker government was welcomed. However, questions are now being asked about some of the decisions the army-backed authorities are taking and no firm date has been set for elections this year. And with the entry of Muhammad Yunus into the political fray, the game has become even more muddied.

Letter from South Asia

New Game in Bangladesh

Amidst the threat of chaos and a bloodbath on the streets of Bangladesh, the army backing for a new caretaker government was welcomed. However, questions are now being asked about some of the decisions the army-backed authorities are taking and no firm date has been set for elections this year. And with the entry of Muhammad Yunus into the political fray, the game has

become even more muddied.


he battle to the death between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) eventually ended the only way such a showdown could. Neither side had the muscle to vanquish the other, and in the end it took decisive action on January 11 by the army that had been dormant the past 15 years, to bring an end to the deadlock.

What would have happened had the army not stepped in?

On January 3, the Awami League-led grand alliance, after three months of going back and forth, finally and definitively announced that it was not contesting the elections that were scheduled for January 22. Instead, the AL announced a series of strikes and agitations and vowed to oppose the elections at all costs. For its part, the BNP-led four party alliance, which had constituted the last elected government, was equally adamant that elections would be held as scheduled, even though the voter roll remained riddled with errors, and the civil administration and police, as well as the judiciary and the election commission, remained firmly in their pocket, leading even impartial observers, both inside and, crucially, outside the country, to declare their lack of confidence in the electoral process.

The BNP plan had always been to goad the AL into boycotting the election, which was why their attempts to stack the deck in their favour were so obvious and open. Elections that are boycotted by the main opposition do not even need to be rigged, and, once in power, the new BNP government could at least arguably claim to be the legitimate and constitutionally constituted government of the country.

What would then have happened is anybody’s guess. That the streets would run with rivers of blood as a consequence, was, however, a foregone conclusion. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the pitched battle for control of the country would have begun long before January 22. But fortunately it never came to that. On January 11, the army decided that it had seen enough. There were many triggers for the army action, including a last minute move to replace the chief of staff with a more BNP-compliant officer, but it is clear that the army was also responding to the very real danger of virtual civil war as AL and BNP activists were preparing to take to the streets to face each other in a definitive and bloody showdown.

However, equally crucial to the army’s decision to step in was the realisation by the big players in the international community, notably the US, that permitting the BNP to go ahead with its plan to rig the elections would give rise to the kind of instability and anarchy that is least desired in Bangladesh. The message was sent to the army that their intervening would not be seen unkindly by the international community and that failing to do so could instead lead to cessation of the army’s participation in UN peacekeeping assignments.

That was enough. Even though still officially unacknowledged, it is confirmed that the president’s decision to step down as chief adviser announced on January 11 and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency was made at the army’s behest. The remaining advisers also resigned in short order and within 48 hours Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in as the new caretaker chief. The latter, in turn, appointed a new council of advisers to govern the country.

Recent Developments

It has been an interesting two months since then. With the exception of the BNP and its allies, there has been widespread acceptance of the events of January 11. It has been generally accepted that the January 22 elections would have been disastrous for Bangladesh had they been held. But the story most certainly does not end there, and 60-odd days later, there is growing disquiet about the current state of affairs and the direction in which the country is headed.

The simple thing for the current caretaker government to have done would have been to institute the reforms (that had been demanded not only by the AL but also by a host of independent and impartial groups) necessary to ensure good elections and to also administer the elections, perhaps with the assistance of the armed forces, with the aim of ensuring a fair result. There is no reason that free and fair elections could not have been held within a reasonable period of time. Interestingly, however, this is not at all what the current administration has chosen to do. Instead, the caretaker government, clearly backed by the army high command, has embarked on a clean-up of the entire political system and to fundamentally alter and reform the country’s dysfunctional political culture. There is no doubt that this is a bold and ambitious agenda, but many wonder where the mandate for such sweeping actions lies and whether such grandiose ambitions might not require a more sceptical assessment of the motives of the powers that be.

The Fakhruddin administration has wasted no time in stamping its authority on the country. The emergency declared on January 11 has not been lifted and the country is being governed under an emergency proclamation under which fundamental rights have been suspended. Most worrisome of all is the fact that the current system of governance is essentially nontransparent and unaccountable. There is no direct chain of command and it is unclear

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

on what (or whose) authority and with what intention various actions have been taken. Officially, the accepted fiction is that Fakhruddin is running the show, though everyone knows this is not the case. What is of concern is that no one can state with certainty as to who is running the government, and an absence of coordination characterises the official and unofficial branches of government.

The most high-profile action taken by the new caretaker government has been a massive anti-corruption and anticrime drive that has targeted principally the leaders and workers of both AL and BNP. Last estimates suggest that around 60,000 are behind bars, though there is no way to confirm this figure since information about those arrested and the disposition of cases has been difficult to come by.

Caught up in this dragnet are some big names on both sides of the aisle, including former ministers and parliamentarians, but it is noticeable that the most powerful and corrupt whose names one would expect to see on the list of those arrested continue to remain free. It could be that the authorities are moving cautiously in order to bring an airtight case, but it is equally possible that there are all sorts of frantic machinations and negotiations being held behind the scenes. The main problem with the current situation is that it is virtually impossible to pry out relevant information from official sources. It should be mentioned that the constitutional legitimacy of the current caretaker government remains in question, but then again, to raise this question would certainly fall foul of the terms of the emergency proclamation.

Meanwhile, the AL and BNP both demand elections as soon as possible: June for the AL, July for the BNP. The authorities have stated that they will need more time than this to institute the necessary reforms for a free and fair elections and it does not look likely that polls will be held before the end of the year.

New Player

This is the backdrop to the announcement made last month by Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to float a new political party and enter politics. The timing is just about right. The current situation gives him the breathing space he needs to get started and the existing political parties are on the run and have never been less popular with the general public. Indeed, there have long been rumours that this was on the cards and that the army would come in and help install a new regime. Things were never quite that neat, though. It would be more accurate to look at the various players in the current scenario as, at best, a loose alliance of like-minded souls rather than a close-knit conspiratorial group. This lack of coordination and cooperation (and even, perhaps, communication) between the major players in the current drama is perhaps the biggest problem. There is no coordination right now and no one really knows what is going on or what anyone else is doing.

The big question, surely, however, must be whether Yunus can actually pull it off and whether he will ultimately be able to alter the political landscape in Bangladesh. It is universally accepted that the political landscape needs to be altered and that continuing down the existing path would have been a recipe for disaster.Had there been a farcical election in January 22, at best it would have precipitated a bloodbath, at worst, at the end of the bloodbath, the BNP, with its record of corruption and criminality, would have been back in power and perhaps for a very long period of time indeed.

And what if real elections were held? If there were elections held tomorrow, or even in June, then all indications are that the AL would storm back to power. Would that not be an improvement? Indications are it would most certainly be so. The BNP showed in the last five years its unfitness to rule, which is why they would have been shown the door by the voters, given the chance. There is no question that an AL government could be expected to be much better. However, two problems remain. One, any new government will still have to deal with the dysfunctional nature of Bangladeshi politics where the opposition boycotts parliament and takes to the streets, bringing the country to a virtual standstill. The second would be that reforms necessary to fix Bangladesh’s dysfunctional democracy, such as separation of the judiciary from the executive, or public procurement reform or the right to information act or parliamentary rules reform, etc, would have been unlikely to be on the AL’s governing agenda, so ultimately not much would have changed at the ground level and the nexus of crime and corruption and politics would have remained.

The question is: Can Yunus deliver?

Well, before he delivers, he has to form his own party and get elected. Early indications are not encouraging. He has made a number of false steps and gaffes and looks every bit the political neophyte that he is. This is not an insuperable problem, but there is no question that he needs to get ready for prime time in a hurry. As can be imagined, people have already begun sniping at him from every angle.

But Yunus may yet have several advantages. One is the anti-corruption drive that could all but cripple the AL and BNP and while it is doubtful that Yunus could win an election in June, a year from today, with a massively depleted AL and BNP, he could. In a sense, therefore, everything depends on the anti-corruption drive. So far, this has not gone well. The drive has been mishandled and here have been countless violations of due process and fundamental rights. This could become a real problem for Yunus since his success depends in turn on the success of the drive, but he does not control it. Indeed, the actions of the caretaker government are his Achilles heel in that much depends on how the army and the caretaker conduct themselves in the next few months, as all their actions, good or bad, will be adduced to Yunus, but he does not control their actions and has no way of reining them in.

Bangladesh today is at the crossroads. The last period of government, the democratic period from 1991 to 2006 that succeeded the military rule of the 1980s, is over. We are now seeing a historical realignment and the beginning of a new era. But what it will eventually look like when the dust finally settles is anybody’s guess.



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Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

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