Sheikh Hasina’s happy day
Source: The Economist
August 7, 2008
The shape of post-military politics begins to emerge
IT HARDLY seemed like a significant event. On August 4th, just 1.5% of Bangladesh’s voters were permitted by the army to go to the polls in the first round of local elections. The vote was held under a state of emergency. Candidates could not compete under party labels. One party leader was in jail, another in exile.
But these were also the first polls held since the army installed a civilian government in January 2007. Fears that the military would rig the result proved unfounded. The election commission purged 12m duplicate, deceased or bogus names from voter rolls. For the first time, Bangladeshis saw a voting system that seemed to deliver a fair and credible outcome.
In this case, the outcome was a decisive victory for candidates backed by the Awami League (candidates had to run as independents but could be supported by parties). It won 12 of 13 mayoral races. The League is led by Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister who remains in exile in America following the government’s decision to release her from prison in June on two months’ medical parole. The day after the poll, the government extended Sheikh Hasina’s bail for another month.
The vote made clear that the army has lost, or given up, the ability to influence the parliamentary election scheduled for December. That election now seems likely to go ahead (it was postponed last year), although the government refuses to set a date and the election commission took this week’s polls as evidence that there was no need to lift the state of emergency. Talk of setting up a national security council, to formalise the army’s role in politics after the vote, has not died down.
But three things make a return to civilian rule more likely. One is the confidence of the Awami League itself. Having been cut off from the public purse for 20 months, its politicians are desperate to get their mitts back on it again.
The next is a split in the League’s main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, the other “battling begum”, who is in jail on corruption charges. Mrs Zia called on her party to boycott the local poll but the party has split in three. At least one faction, no less desperate to return to power than the Awami League, is likely to defy her call to boycott the general election, too.
The BNP is now trying to get the Awami League to join it in a movement against influential military figures, invoking 1990, when in a rare moment of harmony the battling begums united to oust the then dictator, Mohammad Ershad. Instead, the League has chosen to join hands with him, probably to keep him out of the BNP camp.
Third, the interim administration is running into problems. The army-backed technocrats who run the country are drifting, unable to take big decisions. Last week Tata, an Indian conglomerate, pulled the plug on a proposed $3 billion foreign investment, the largest ever in Bangladesh. The costs of uncertainty are speeding up the return of an elected government.