Source: The Economist
Date: February 7, 2008
It is hard to find, leading to fears that the army might overstay its welcome
MORE than a year after Bangladesh's generals intervened in the country's failing democracy, they have yet to lift the state of emergency and declare a date for the parliamentary election they have promised by the end of 2008. This week the political parties, the election commission and foreign powers stepped up the pressure on the generals to leave politics.
The two big political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), called for the poll to be held by June. But the election commission said some 50m voters (out of an estimated 80m) were yet to be registered. The election date would not be set until September. More important, the parties are calling for the release of their detained leaders, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, both former prime ministers, known as the two “begums”. Corruption allegations against these feuding heads of competing kleptocracies seem to have done little to dent their popular appeal.
This complicates the generals' plans. The begums have won at least 70% of the popular vote in every election since the end of the last military regime in 1990. After failing to send them into exile last year, or to convince the parties to ditch them, the army must now trust that judges will convict them both. Under new electoral rules, this would bar them from the next election. But the legal cases seem ill-prepared and credible convictions unlikely. This week the first of four cases filed against Sheikh Hasina appeared close to collapse. The trial against Khaleda Zia, prime minister till October 2006, is yet to begin. Her party, the BNP, is a shambles. It has split but its reformist faction is too weak to challenge the League.
It seems certain that the calls to release the two women will intensify. In the absence of other leaders, this gives the army a choice: democracy and the two begums or no begums and no democracy. Determined not to let them back, the generals, it is feared, may choose the latter course.
One way out would be the creation of a national government of all the parties. The idea has been around since before the army intervened to install a civilian interim government in January 2007. But, if freed, the former prime ministers are more likely to pursue revenge than co-operation. The same goes for the 200-odd other politicians and businessmen locked up in the anti-corruption drive.
The interim government has worked hard and effectively to repair the country's battered institutions and prepare the ground for elections. But doubts remain about what real power a new parliament would have. Talk about the creation of a National Security Council to formalise the army's role in politics, as in Pakistan, has not died down.
The longer the emergency persists, the less likely a graceful, timely exit by the army becomes. Its dilemma is increasingly bothering Western governments and donors. Both supported the army's intervention and anti-corruption drive. But the muzzling of the press and continuing human-rights abuses have strained their patience. Unlike Pakistan, however, which has nuclear weapons, a terrorist network and dangerous ethnic divisions, Bangladesh, for all its frightening troubles, does not seem to provoke a real sense of urgency among foreign governments.