Wednesday, September 19, 2007

All may yet be well

All may yet be well
William B Milam

Source: Daily Times
September 19, 2007

After years of autocratic military rule, and more years of autocratic rule by elected governments, my guess is that Bangladeshis want a real voice in their government, not just a chance to vote every five years

It seems incredible that both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the two countries I know best and follow closely in South Asia, are in political crisis at the same time. This coincidence in itself may be a historic first. Some may think it a columnist’s dream: two crises to pick and choose from; in fact, I consider it a columnist’s nightmare. Which one do I write about, the one in which a happier ending seems more likely, or the one in which a bad ending looks (that week, at least) to be in the cards?

In the present duelling crises, the task of choosing which of these beleaguered nations to write about is much more difficult than the actual writing. The choice is usually made on some whim, poetical or otherwise, so readers are cautioned not to infer any judgment as to which crisis I deem worse at the moment. Often it is because the situation in the one I choose not to write about is in a kind of hiatus, the opposing forces are winded and are gathering their strength.

That seems true in Pakistan this weekend. Banquo’s Ghost in the form of Nawaz Sharif has come back and gone again—deported unceremoniously. Isn’t that what Kings do to ghosts who want their chair? Benazir Bhutto, who may look a lot like Banquo’s Ghost to the ruling PMLQ, isn’t coming back for another month. Her fate looks, at the moment, less drastic than Mr Sharif; on the other hand, she may end up in jail. The Election Commission may announce the election schedule soon, but right now is rewriting some of the rules. In all, hiatus reigns, and the implications of last week’s actions are yet to be determined (though it is hard to see how they could be good).

While things seem equally quiet in Bangladesh, in fact, the next few weeks are critical to the success of the experiment in democracy-building going on there. The choices the civilian caretaker government and its military ally make on the one hand, and those that civil society, political leaders, and the international community make on the other, will determine whether there will be enough trust and confidence in the aims and motivations of the interim regime to see it through to free and fair elections and the restoration of civilian supremacy and sovereignty.

The alternatives are obvious and equally pernicious. The first would be a political clampdown and extension of military rule, a la Ershad. I personally think this less likely than many other outside observers—many who rail at the alleged re-imposition of military rule after 17 years of (a peculiar kind of) “democracy”. The other is a return to status quo ante January 11, 2007—kleptocratic semi-democracy, in which the politicians enrich themselves, and the people who elect them have actually no say in their government’s policies. I would bet on this scenario if the caretaker government fails.

The trouble that brewed up almost instantly on the university campuses a couple of weeks ago—probably aided by some of the die-hard politicians—should have been a wake up call to the civilian and the military side of this interim dispensation. It is not clear yet that it was. What comes through all the difficulties is the absolute necessity for the government to reach out to all elements in the society for dialogue and explanation.

I believe that most Bangladeshis want this experiment to succeed. They have experienced the bad alternatives already: the military alternative of Ershad during the 1980s; the kleptocratic sham democracy during the 1990s and until early this year. The fear is that this regime is heading in the same directions, consciously or not.

The regime should have begun a dialogue with the political parties some time ago. Fortunately, that is now beginning. But the two former political leaders, on the defensive and under great pressure with their own legal difficulties, have suddenly become allies. The last, and only, time that ever happened before was in 1990 when they teamed up to drive Ershad from power.

Their interests are congruent again as they were a few months ago, to undercut the experiment now underway so that they can rise again to political power. Among other ways of undercutting the present experiment is to charge that the interim regime is really a Trojan horse designed to return the military to power. Their efforts in this regard are mainly aimed at the international community.

The regime also needs to reach out in regard to the sagging economy and rising prices. As always in politics, the regime in power gets the blame for economic difficulties whether it had any control over economic trends or not. It needs to pull together a committee which is a cross section of society for dialogue on economic problems and discussion of remedies. This committee would not only bring together expertise and knowledge to advise the government, but be a conduit to the public, explaining the problems, their origin, and the policies adopted to meet them.

The business and financial sector must be a part, but also the political parties, the academic community, and other respected voices. One example, if his health permits, would be Saifur Rahman, long-time Finance Minister in the BNP governments, who was very well respected in his time by the modern part of the business sector and the international community. He would add gravitas, great experience and a political party connection. I wonder if Mohammed Yunus, given his wealth of experience and his prestige might figure prominently in this committee.

The regime must convince the public and the parties that it intends to hold elections and turn the government back to elected civilians as soon as possible. The regime seems sometimes to dither on electoral procedures. I have not yet seen, despite my harping on it, a good explanation as to why the government insists on a photo voters list in the next election, which most of society (except maybe for some of the politicians who want to sew seeds of distrust) regards as neutral and non-partisan.

There is still time, and hope. But both are running short as Bangladeshis lose patience, in great part because this regime has acted so far, in one respect, just like its predecessors. It has run the state without a wide range of input or interaction with civil society, the business community, and ordinary people. After years of autocratic military rule, and more years of autocratic rule by elected governments, my guess is that Bangladeshis want a real voice in their government, not just a chance to vote every five years. They want real democracy for a change.

There is a sense, I understand from many of my Bangladeshi friends, of not understanding the aims of this interim regime, not feeling involved in its decisions, or having vested interests in its success. Worse still, many distrust its intentions—and this plays into the hands of those who are trying to undermine it for their own political or economic reasons. If the regime succeeds in broadening its appeal through outreach and dialogue with all the elements of the society, this experiment in building new democratic structures on the ruins of a failed democracy may work. If not, back to square one.

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. His columns reflect his personal views and not those of the United States Government

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