Friday, July 27, 2007

Bangladesh's deepening crisis

(Source: International Relations & Security Network, Published on July 26, 2007)
Bangladesh's military-backed caretaker government is taking the country down a destructive path, weakening the chances of any effective restoration of democracy.

The political crisis in Bangladesh seems to be on the rise once again - which might seem paradoxical at a time when the country's military-backed caretaker government has recently announced its much-awaited roadmap to hold parliamentary elections sometime between October and December 2008.

However, the government has continued to persist with its assault on the institutional underpinnings of democracy in the country, the latest episode being the arrest of the former prime minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

Hasina was taken into custody after a Bangladeshi businessman working in the power sector filed a case against her accusing her of extortion during her tenure as the prime minister between 1996 and 2001.

Earlier this year, the government refused to allow Hasina to enter the country and she was left stranded in the UK. Only after pressure from the international community did the government relent.

After the tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government ended last October, political violence became widespread. National elections scheduled for January 2007 were postponed indefinitely, and a state of emergency was declared by President Iajuddin Ahmed with the backing of the military.

Despite warnings from the international community against any move toward military rule, the caretaker administration has tightened its grip over the country. It has declared its ambition to uproot corruption and violence in electoral politics as well as to effectively tackle Islamist militancy. This has led to the arrest of several high-ranking politicians on charges of graft and the execution of a few high-profile militants.

The Election Commission of Bangladesh has now declared a four phase roadmap for polls that will be held after certain electoral reforms are undertaken. Speculation abounded that the leaders of both major political parties - the BNP's Khaleda Zia and the Awami League's Hasina - would be forced to give up their positions before their parties would be allowed to participate in the elections. Instead, the caretaker government arrested Hasina and it is highly probable that Zia will meet the same fate in the coming days.

The government certainly knew that the tensions would soar following the arrest of a major mainstream political leader, but it had taken security precautions. Given that the nation is already under a state of emergency, political protests have so far tended to be under control. There is widespread discontent within the rank and file of both major political parties, which view the talk of reorganization as a ploy to break up and weaken the mainstream parties.

The military-backed government seems to be gradually tightening its grip over the political apparatus in the name of fighting corruption and launching political reforms. There are suggestions that the proposal to hold local elections on a non-party basis is an effort to pack the local institutions with military loyalists.

These developments are indeed ominous given the country's history of military.

Over the past few years, politics in Bangladesh had become overtly personalized, revolving around the personalities of its two main leaders, Zia and Hasina. The two were so busy criticizing and trying to undermine each other that they had little time to debate serious issues of governance.

The political struggle between the center-right BNP and the center-left Awami League had turned into a zero-sum game in which the biggest loser was Bangladesh itself. Shunning the give and take of democratic politics, the two parties seemed to keep their country perpetually on the verge of chaos, alternating between state repression and crippling national strikes aimed at toppling the government.

The increased polarization between the two mainstream political parties opened up "political space" for extremist Islamic parties using their new-found relevance as leverage to place their radical agenda at the forefront of Bangladeshi politics. The growth of radical Islam in Bangladesh owes a lot to the failure of parliamentary democracy and the weakening of civil society over the past few years.

However, it is increasingly unclear if the strategy followed by the current caretaker government is right solution for Bangladesh.

By weakening the main institutions that have sustained whatever remains of democracy in Bangladesh, the military-backed government is further weakening the chances of the restoration of effective democracy in the country.

The US as well as India, the two main international actors, have made their displeasure clear at the recent turn of events. But the international community needs to do much more to put pressure on the caretaker government to desist from the pursuing the destructive path it has chosen.
Harsh V Pant is a lecturer at King's College London. His research interests include WMD proliferation, US foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. The views expressed are his own.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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