Friday, July 20, 2007

Rebranding Democracy in Bangladesh

[we've republished Daniel Nelson's in depth analysis from the OneWorld for our readers. Please click here to access this article at OneWorld]

Rebranding Democracy in Bangladesh
OneWorld UK
By Daniel Nelson

So Bangladesh’s army chief, Moeen U Ahmed, says he wants the military-backed interim government to build a new brand of democracy.

“I reckon Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy, recognising its social, historical and cultural conditions, with religion being one of several components of its national identity,” he was quoted as saying this week.

His comments will strike a chord with the exasperation felt by many people over the seemingly endless vituperation between the two main parties and the inability of either to recognise or act as “the loyal opposition”.

But the military has to overcome a great deal of cynicism about its plans and motives. And even if its motives are genuine, it’s hard to believe it has the ability to achieve Moeen Ahmed’s apparently simple task of coming up with “a new brand of democracy”.

At worst, the aim is a stalling tactic to put off elections. At best, it is aiming ambitiously high. The danger with high ambition is massive failure, necessitating a repeat of the protracted process by which Bangladeshis forced out the previous military government and painstakingly established at least a partial democracy.

The international precedents for rebranding are not particularly good. Turkey offers one of the few examples, and Atataurk’s blueprint has relevance because it, too, is designed to balance Islam, secularism and the military. Whether the Bangladesh military has the national standing to bring about a similar shift is doubtful.

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia offer variations on a Southeast Asian model whose authoritarianism is legitimised by economic advance. Again, the Bangladesh military might provide the authoritarianism, but probably not the economic management.

Individual leaders such as Muammar Gadaffi in Libya and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela have tried to institute their own takes on democracy but they are too charismatic to offer useful examples to Bangladesh’s lower-key military leaders or technocrats.

Perhaps the most recent exponent of a new model democracy is President Yoweri Museveni. He fought his way to power and ushered in a “no party” policy based on the idea that Uganda’s need was not political parties, which he saw as inherently divisive, but a national commitment to eradicate poverty and disease.

He’s still in power 21 years later, partly thanks to people’s relief that his rule has stopped a return to the years of dictatorship, mayhem and muddle that preceded him. But he shows no signs of wanting to relinquish the reins.

In Bangladesh, the head of the interim government, former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed has said no new election will be held until politics and government are rid of widespread corruption. Taken literally, that is tantamount to saying goodbye to elections for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the current temporary powers-that-be are banking on the new party launched by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the microcredit Grameen Bank and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Certainly, Yunus will benefit from the statement made on Thursday (5 April) that there will be no polls for at least 18 months. That gives him time to organise.

He clearly hopes Nagorik Shakti (Citizen Power) will break the deadlock between the two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, and that his clean reputation will draw support from all parts of the country.

The danger for Yunus is that as his party grows and attracts politicians of less probity than himself, the opposite might occur: instead of the party cleaning politics, politics will contaminate the party.

Arguably, a man of such reputation as Yunus might exert more influence by sticking to what he is good at and setting an example, rather than stepping into the quicksand of Bangladeshi politics.

* Daniel Nelson worked in Uganda for six years before Idi Amin overthrew Milton Obote, and was in Bangladesh at the time General Ershad was driven from office.

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