[Read this analysis by Rehman Sobhan, Published in Daily Star on August 3, 2007]
The exit strategy for the caretaker government (CTG) may turn out to be its most challenging task because the full agenda of the forces behind such a government have yet to be made explicit. In exploring the options of the CTG and its backers it may be well to take some lessons from the entry and exit of previous militarised regimes in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
If we look back at the history of military interventions in Pakistan/Bangladesh, all of these have followed a common path and all have ended badly. The special feature of the latest such venture in Bangladesh is so far unique and thus holds the promise that they may end up standing by their commitment to the people of Bangladesh. The preceding military regimes all came into public life promising to clean up politics and eradicate corruption but ended up embracing the very vices which they sought to eliminate from public life. This reversal of fortunes was inherent in their act of self-betrayal and should be heeded as a lesson for all the current players in Bangladesh's unfolding political drama.
The present intervention by the armed forces retains several distinguishing features. It has so far not come in behind a martial law decree but within the framework of the Constitution, though with the passage of time this framework is being severely stretched. Because this intervention has remained within the Constitution, the armed forces have not had to present a visible face. Nor has the institutional head of the armed forces proclaimed a personal mission to rule the country. So far the armed force have remained committed to help the CTG to hold a free and fair general election and to then withdraw.
However, as the tenure of the CTG lengthens and its reach increasingly intrudes into the political area due to the actions of its backers, the exit strategy for the armed forces is becoming increasingly problematic. At the end of 2008 there is no reason why a free and fair election cannot be held, given the credibility of the CTG and the Election Commission as well as the time and resources invested in the electoral process.
The goal of the CTG, which is presumably underwritten by the armed forces, is to eradicate corruption and to prevent such corrupt elements from contesting the elections. These goals are widely shared but are not necessarily the same. Ensuring that few corrupt people contest elections in December 2008 is entirely feasible, given the determination of the EC, the firm actions of the Anti-Corruption Commission, and the full support of the CTG. Eradicating corruption, is, however, a systemic issue which demands that the regime elected to power in December 2008 shares this vision and remains committed to sustain the mission of the CTG. Such a systemic commitment will depend, in considerable measure, on who is elected to power in 2008 and the institutional safeguards put in place by the CTG which can be built into the system no matter who is elected. Building such safeguards is a challenge for the CTG and also to the ingenuity of its advisors in civil society. But however clearly crafted be these interventions by the CTG, it will require another five years of political support by a freely elected government to consolidate such reforms.
It is this problem of sustaining the reform process which provides the real challenge to the exit strategy of the armed forces at the end of 2008. No doubt much hope had been invested in a person such as Muhammad Yunus, to build a new political party wedded to ended corruption and institutionalising good governance. Now that Yunus has withdrawn from the political arena, some new political formations are surfacing (though it is not clear if they enjoy any extra-political patronage). It is here that the armed forces will really have to take account of the lessons from the experience of their predecessors in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The principal lesson for our armed forces is to avoid, at all costs, the task of fabricating or even sponsoring a political party or force made up of the same unelectable political figures. This involvement proved the undoing of Ayub, Yahya, Zeaul Haq, Pervez Musharraf, Ziaur Rahman, and Ershad. To depend on elements who cannot politically sustain themselves and can only be elected through patronage from the cantonment will take Bangladesh down the same road of corruption and malgovernance which proved the undoing of previous military-backed regimes. Such an involvement would not only erode the institutional credibility of the armed forces but compromise their future participation in international peacekeeping operations.
There is thus no alternative for the CTG and their backers but to let the political process in Bangladesh take its own course. This means that our major political parties must be given the freedom to reform themselves. Whether this opportunity will be frustrated by the ongoing presence of the two netris is not for me to say. The parties themselves have to work this out. Attempts by the CTG to somehow eliminate the netris by incarcerating them is likely to become counter-productive and could indeed compromise the credibility of the "reformers" within their respective parties.
In this context, the recent arrest of Shiekh Hasina has already put the "reformers" in the Awami League on the defensive. This is not to argue that the netris should enjoy immunity for any wrong-doing. If there are genuine cases of corruption which can be established against the netris then let the evidence be produced up front and validated in a court of law. It would obviously not be to the advantage of either party to be led by leaders whose integrity is open to public question. But if little hard evidence can be generated and cases have to be fabricated against the netris so that they have to be ousted from their leadership through some extra-legal measures, then the netris will continue to retain their authority in the party whatever may be their formal status or geographical location, whether in a sub-jail in Dhaka or in exile in Miami. One need only witness the political resilience enjoyed by both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in spite of each having demonstrated their corruption and malgovernance over two successive regimes. Today, both leaders continue to call the shots in their respective parties from their exile abroad and one day hope to once again lead their country.
If the two netris can neither be ousted from effective leadership of their parties or are unwilling to bring about meaningful reform in their parties, then the only credible option is to look to the emergence of a third political force. But as we have observed, such a force cannot be fabricated inside or outside the cantonment because this will condemn Bangladesh to move back on the same cycle of fraudulent democracy and malgovernance which originated under Ayub in Pakistan and was continued by Ziaur Rahman and Ershad in Bangladesh. It is these synthetic exercises in party formation which have corrupted the political culture of both Pakistan and Bangladesh and made it all the more difficult to build a sustainable democratic system.
If a third political force is to emerge to challenge the hegemony of the two political parties, with or without their netris, it must emerge from the political soil of Bangladesh and win a free and fair election in December 2008. All that can be ensured by the CTG and their backers is that in the December 2008 election both money and muscle power, the staple of the old political order, will be completely neutralised. If a third party cannot survive in such a genuinely competitive political market place then we will have to take our chances with whatever forces will be elected to power. This may leave us with an uncertain and possibly dangerous future but that is the price we must continue to pay, if we hope to preserve a democratic system. This may hardly be worse than the Pakistan model which led to the disintegration of the country and may fragment it even further.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Editorial Board, Forum.