Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tricky task of political transition

(We're sharing this wonderful political analysis of military regimes with our readers)

Juntas' tricky task of political transition
Source: Kerry B. Collison

2008 is shaping up to be the year when military-backed governments around the region face the tricky task of placing the administration of their respective countries back in the hands of an elected civilian leadership.

Such handovers are either already under way or have been promised in Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even Myanmar's longserving generals have promised further progress in their 'roadmap to democracy', albeit one that enjoys little credibility in the eyes of independent observers.

Such political transitions, however, are rarely easy for military-backed governments, and this year promises to be no exception. In Thailand, the process is already well-advanced, with elections having been held on Dec 23 last year. But the task has been complicated by the fact that the People Power Party (PPP), a political grouping sympathetic to Thaksin Shinawatra (the man the generals ousted in September 2006) has become the largest in the legislature.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, polls have been postponed for six weeks after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Dec 27 upset pre-election power sharing deals and plunged the country into yet more political turmoil.

Next on the list is Bangladesh. The military-backed government has promised elections no later than December. But the generals in Dhaka are not having an easy time either.

Bangladesh does not get much international attention. Unlike Pakistan, it is not perceived as being at the front line in the battle against terrorism. Nor does it get noticed - like Thailand - on the strength of its popularity as a tourist destination. And unlike Myanmar, its generals are not known for their headline grabbing brutality in suppressing civilian protests. Yet Bangladesh is as good a country as any to illustrate the political logic facing military-backed regimes in countries that take over from elected civilian administrations.

The current government in Dhaka seized power on Jan 12 last year following protracted political violence in the wake of the failure of an interim administration to hold scheduled elections. Led by former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, but backed heavily by the military, it pledged to clean up local politics, eliminate corruption and organise elections as soon as possible.

Sounds familiar? It should. Thai coup leaders said almost exactly the same thing in September 2006, and Pakistan's leader Pervez Musharraf has been promising something similar for years.

Such pledges go to the heart of the dilemma facing military regimes. The need for political legitimacy requires coup plotters to appeal to the national interest. But military regimes also have vested interests of their own, sometimes making it difficult for high-minded political objectives to be carried out. The spoils of office, for example, may prove too attractive - one reason such regimes often last longer than early announcements by the leaders of successful coups would suggest.

Then there is the need to ensure that any future government that comes to power as a result of the promised election is sympathetic to the coup plotters. No military strongman wants to hold an election only to be forced into early retirement by the winners, an outcome Thai generals will be particularly anxious to avoid right now.

The possibility that real democracy might lead to such a situation often prompts self-proclaimed national saviours to do undemocratic things. These include preventing the regime's critics from standing for election and changing the Constitution in ways that entrench the role of the military in civilian life.

Like Thailand and Pakistan, things went well in Bangladesh at first. Frustrated by years of protracted political squabbling between the conservative Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the left-leaning Awami League (AL), the public initially welcomed the military's move. The interim government began by rounding up dozens of politicians and businessmen, including former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, in a widespread anti-corruption campaign.

It then initiated a crackdown on Islamic extremists, reversing a policy of tolerance pursued by the previous BNP government. Much progress was also made in separating the judiciary from the executive and improving the efficiency of key infrastructures such as the Chittagong port.

But today, with the economy in the doldrums and a series of natural disasters adding to the country's woes, the generals are probably feeling much less confident.

Partly as a result of an over-enthusiastic anti-corruption drive that has disrupted supply chains and (some argue) scared away legitimate investors, inflation and unemployment have become serious problems. High international commodity prices and natural disasters have exacerbated the situation, leading to a decline in support for the current government, particularly in the poorer rural areas.

Meanwhile, the tough response of the military to student protests in August last year has reminded Bangladeshis of past military dictatorships.

Despite the pretence of civilian rule through a group of renowned technocrats, the army is involved in almost everything the government does - from selling food to the poor to running the anti-corruption commission. And General Moeen U Ahmed, the head of the army, is frequently quoted discussing non-military matters - notably the economy.

Critics have recently been asking when the government intends to end emergency rule in order to allow political parties to campaign in the promised elections.

Compared to developments in Pakistan, Thailand and Myanmar, the activities of Bangladesh's military-backed government have not received much international attention. Yet a smooth transition to civilian rule in Dhaka could be as important as anything that is going on in Bangkok, New Delhi or Yangon.

One danger, according to Husain Haqqani, a Pakistan expert and adviser to the late Benazir Bhutto, is the 'Pakistanisation' of the country. There are certainly some uncomfortable similarities. Islamist extremist groups have been gaining influence in Bangladesh in recent years, corruption has badly weakened key national institutions, and democracy is regarded by many as a luxury best put off for the future. Should the military-backed government's transition plans stall, and existing secular parties remain unreformed, could political opposition begin to coalesce around Islamic groups widely suspected of having links to international terrorist organisations?

Shahaidul Islam, a research associate with the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, does not think so. He argues that Bangladeshis are strong supporters of secular government. Besides, 'the crackdown on the extremists has been very effective', and while the reforms may have caused some disruption, 'they will benefit the country in the long run'. What is crucial, he believes, is that the promised elections are held as scheduled in order to eliminate political uncertainty and encourage investors to return.

In other words, it is important to get the political transition right.

By Bruce Gale
The Straits Times
Publication Date: 18-01-2008

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