ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On a Bumpy Road to Elections

Fakhruddin Ahmed announced that the elections in Bangladesh will take place as scheduled in December. The ultimate motives are questionable as the state of emergency is still in place. Qualms about closer civil-military cooperation are widespread. With the pretext of bolstering national security the fear is that military will play a permanent role in political affairs. The choice of the new us ambassador is also indicative of American intervention in empowering the army.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAmay 31, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8On a Bumpy Road to ElectionsFarid BakhtFarid Bakht ( is a commentator on south Asian affairs.Fakhruddin Ahmed announced that the elections in Bangladesh will take place as scheduled in December. The ultimate motives are questionable as the state of emergency is still in place. Qualms about closer civil-military cooperation are widespread. With the pretext of bolstering national security the fear is that military will play a permanent role in political affairs. The choice of the new us ambassador is also indicative of American intervention in empowering the army.“The sun of the New Year will welcome an elected and people’s representative government after December….” With these ringing words, the chief adviser of the caretaker govern-ment of Bangladesh, Fakhruddin Ahmed announced that elections would be held during the third week of December this year. In an address to the country on radio and television, Ahmed also decreed that some of the restrictions on political acti-vity would be lifted. Moreover, a series of dialogues would be conducted with the political parties.This was a significant announcement in that a specific time frame is now in place. It has also raised the stakes. The us embassy has become publicly more active, raising alarm among some commentators that the country is entering a period of six months, beset with minefields. Even if the army returns to the barracks after the promised elections, they look set to intro-duce a National Security Council and thus play a permanent and central role in political affairs. Ahmed, the preferred public face for a military-controlled government, hoped that his speech would draw a line and put an end, once and for all, to doubts about whether an election would be held. Politics in ShacklesThe regime is continuing its draconian limits on politics, notwithstanding its par-tial move to allow more “indoor politics”. With only a few months to go, political parties are not allowed to hold large public gatherings. In a nation of limited literacy and access to information, this is nothing more than a gag on political expression, preventing meaningful contact with the people. Instead, politicians have been advised to go “door-to-door” to reach out to voters. The “relaxation” requires that the parties contact the metropolitan police commissioner or district magistrate at least 48 hours before any proposed meet-ing. No more than 200 people will be allowed to attend. For larger numbers, the party organisers will have to ask for special permission. All these meetings have to be conducted indoors. The use of loudspeakers is prohibited. To cap it all, the regime has decided the content of any such gathering – only party activities, including elections, can be discussed. The chief adviser also made no immedi-ate commitment to removing the state of emergency. Thus, processions, rallies and strikes continue to be banned. Under the Emergency Powers Rules, the regime can arrest any individual if it considers his or her actions will have an adverse effect on relations with another country or against the “public interest”. The latter gives lee-way for arbitrary imprisonment. He has disregarded the parties’ demand that local elections should be held before national polls. Thus an unnecessary com-plication has been created which will be seen as yet another attempt to influence the general elections. Most importantly, the two ex-prime ministers remain in jail on corruption charges. Khaleda Zia was interrogated last week about her role in the Barapu-kuria coal mine deal. She suggested: “If cases are filed in such a manner, no government in future will be able to run the state...”At the time of writing, neither of the two main parties has decided whether to engage in dialogue with the regime. Since May 22, smaller parties have trooped into the chief adviser’s residence. The Bangla-desh Nationalist Party (bnp) secretary general, Khandaker Delwar Hossain, loyal to Khaleda Zia, initially declined to accept a letter of invitation. Under sustained government pressure, thebnp had been split into two. Meanwhile, the other bnp group, led by Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, was also invited to the talks, in this game of divide-and-rule.The Jamaat-e-Islami, so far relatively unscathed, has just seen its leader, Matiur Rahman Nizami, end up behind bars along with the ex-secretary general of thebnp, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan. They have been accused of corruption in the awarding of a
LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 31, 20089contract to handle containers in the land port in Dhaka and also in Chittagong. The contract was given to Global Agro-Trade Company (gatco) in 2003. While few doubt that significant amounts of cash greased hands, it is widely felt this is just another motivated case to pressure political leaders and also provide some window dressing. The choice of date for dialogue seems to be highly inappropriate. The ex-premiers are either being hauled into court or ques-tioned at the same time as the regime makes apparently conciliatory gestures of wide-ranging discussions on the political future of the country. The continuing mistrust of the ultimate motives was highlighted by comments by the bnp’s Delwar Hossain when he said the government was conspiring to “form a dummy parliament…via a farcical elec-tion”. He continued by claiming the Elec-tion Commission was implementing the military’s agenda in proposing a bicam-eral parliament, increases in the number of parliamentary seats and changes in the constitution. Countering the chief advis-er’s speech, he accused him instead of “... want(ing) to hold an election without participation of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina…. (which) cannot happen”. Renewed American InterventionThe choice of the new us ambassador has been ringing alarm bells. James F Moriarty earned notoriety during his tenure in Nepal. A look at his record suggests his broad experience of Asian politics is of the aggressive bent (as seen in his handling of clashes with China over embassy bomb-ings and military incursions). A speaker of Bangla (among four other languages), the motives of the 13thus ambassador to the country have been ques-tioned by some of the more independent Dhaka analysts. It has been noted that he had a penchant of visiting Nepali army camps, making bellicose speeches against the Maoists and displayed hands-on activism in trying to break up the alliance of the political parties with the Maoists. Regarding Bangladesh, in a press con- ference in Dhaka, he tried to be dis-arming by suggesting: “I wouldn’t dream of getting involved in your internal affairs”. History suggests otherwise and it remains to be seen whether the Americans will back a flawed election and/or constitutional changes to em-power the army’s role. A Charter or Security Council? Fakhruddin Ahmed has also mentioned the need for a national charter. This is being regarded as a smokescreen for the emergence of a national security council. Mooted in mid-2007 by general Moeen Ahmed, the regime has been coy in its details. What can be gleaned is that it will be an updated version of a proposal in 1996, with the power to intervene in self-designated “times of emergency”.Several seminars have been held to gain support in “civil society” but has seen few takers. Moeen Ahmed recently extended his tenure as head of the army by one more year to June 2009 and will oversee the much publicised “exit strategy”.This has been amended to include the following:– Conduct national elections with a view for smaller parties to hold a balance of power. This looks like including Bikalpa Dhara and the Jatiyo Party (the cases against its party chief, ex-dictator HM Ershad, are being removed one by one). – Mete out sentences on the two ex-prime ministers and invalidate their participa-tion in elections. By encouraging splits (so far only in the bnp and not Awami League), it is thought the two main parties will receive diminished votes. – If that were not to work, the National security council would hold the real power in being able to dismiss any new adminis-tration, on the count of national security or perhaps on the back of economic mis-management. On the latter point, the regime is being diverted from coping with its own economic crisis. The 10 advisers (quasi ministers) are having to hold meetingsregarding elections rather than expedite key decisions. For example, the law adviser, A F Hassan Arif com-mented: “I can hardly make time for my ministries in the midst of the hectic dialogue process”.While rice prices have seen small declines in wholesale markets after the “boro” harvest, this has not filtered to retail outlets. The ban on public protest is masking widespread anger. This could be unleashed openly in the winter political campaign, whether or not the state of emergency is withdrawn. Course on Qualitative Methods in Labour Research (July 1-12, 2008)V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA invites applications from young teachers and researchers from Universities/Colleges/Research Institutions and professionals in government organizations who intend to pursue their interest in labour research and policy, for participating in the Course on Qualitative Methods in Labour Research, during July 1-12, 2008. The objectives of this course are to (a) understand the emerging issues in labour and employment in the context of globalization; (b) appraise the participants with the theoretical perspectives on labour; (c) understand and apply various qualitative methods and techniques in labour research; (d) familiarize the participants with the analysis and interpretation of qualitative data. Each of the selected participants would be required to make a brief presentation of a research proposal/paper related to their current theme of research interest, during the course period. There is no course fee and the selected candidates will be provided to-and-fro sleeper class fare and free boarding and lodging during the Course duration.Details regarding the Course and application form can be downloaded from All applications must be accompanied by a no objection certificate/recommendation of the employer/research supervisor. Applicationsalong with the bio-data and a brief statement of the applicant’s research interests in labour studies may be sent toDr. Ruma Ghosh, Associate Fellow, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA -201301 or at (Contact details: Phone No. (0120)-2411533, 2411535, 2411538, Fax No. (0120)-2411536, 2411474)

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