The events of the past year in Dhaka are increasingly beginning to fit into the formula of a tragedy scripted in Islamabad nearly a decade ago. It was one year ago, on 11 January 2007, that a military-backed interim government seized power in a gentrified coup in Dhaka – apparently endorsed by key embassies and the United Nations. In so doing, the new leadership scrapped elections scheduled for later that month, which many had thought were likely to be rigged in any case. The civilian façade of the government comprised of the good and great of Dhaka civil society, led by former World Banker Fakhruddin Ahmed. As such, there was a sense of heady exhilaration among Dhaka’s middle and upper classes, who desperately wanted to believe that a country governed according to the vision of ‘a few good men’ was better off than being caught in the crude power struggle of two rival political parties amidst a violent political subculture of longstanding.
In his address to the country at that time, likewise echoing past formulations from Pakistan, Chief Advisor Fakhruddin invoked the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’. He went on to cite the pre-electoral political violence that had seen more than 30 people killed, and the culture of muscle power and money that had come to dominate the political arena, as the raison d’etre for his non-representative government. The interim government promised to carry out key administrative and electoral reforms; wage a war against corruption in politics, big business and the bureaucracy; and to hold free and fair elections, featuring “honest” candidates, by the end of 2008. Decency and accountability would thus to be restored to governance.
One year on, as Bangladesh teeters on the precipice of economic and political breakdown, there are rumours of a martial law in the offing. These suggestions seem to gain strength even as the government and the army chief, Moeen U Ahmed, publicly deny them. Meanwhile, the only visible electoral and bureaucratic reforms thus far have been regime changes at key government and quasi-government institutions. Actual political reform has been stalled by internecine battles for leadership within the country’s two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). This gridlock, suggest many political analysts, has been largely engineered by the government.
This sluggishness in the political arena looks set to continue in 2008. While the Election Commission has embarked on an ambitious identification-card project, at this point it appears likely to miss every key deadline that could actually lead to the promised elections by the end of the year. The fact that the Commission is still answerable to the office of the chief executive (previously the prime minister’s office), which controls its funding, means that the most significant reform for which many have been clamouring until now remains incomplete.
The interim government’s repeated attempts to exile the ‘two begums’ – Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, who respectively head the Awami League and the BNP – have failed in the face of popular resistance and the refusal on the part of the two ladies to be intimidated. Likewise, the once-celebrated anti-corruption crusade has quickly lost credibility, as rumoured backdoor deals see a trickle of corrupt businessmen emerging from the prison gates. To its chagrin, the government, too, has realised that its overzealousness in arbitrarily arresting key business leaders during the early months of 2007 succeeded in little more than destroying business confidence. To make up for all of this instability (which it helped to create), the Dhaka regime has been compelled to form a ‘truth commission’, where corrupt businessmen can confess past sins and atone with a fine to avoid jail sentences.
But no matter what elaborate courtship dance the government performs with the private sector, the climate of fear has driven investment levels down by more than 80 percent compared to past years. Bangladesh’s sustained economic growth of over five percent for much of the past decade now looks imperilled by the 98 percent drop in foreign-direct-investment proposals during the course of 2007 – particularly when coupled with the aftershocks of two spells of flooding and the devastating Cyclone Sidr, all of which extracted a massive toll on the rural economy. Meanwhile, globally high prices for foodgrains and the government’s mismanagement of the economy has led to anywhere from a 26 to 70 percent rise in the prices of essential foods.
Perhaps most crucially for the government’s nosediving public support, with fundamental rights being held at bay by an open-ended state of emergency, and press freedom being curtailed by what one prominent Dhaka editor describes as mandatory “chilling meetings with certain intelligence agencies”, the Dhaka regime is increasingly under fire for a rapidly deteriorating human-rights record. In January, Irene Khan, the visiting chief of the international watchdog Amnesty International, drew attention to a rising incidence of extrajudicial killings across the country, as well as torture in custody, and intimidation of human-rights activists by the security forces. Rights groups allege that much of the testimony being used as evidence in the trial of corrupt politicians is being extracted through torture or otherwise under duress. Assuming the allegations are true, this would dramatically undermine the credibility of any trial process.
Slow electoral progress and this slew of additional failures make a viable exit strategy for the Fakhruddin government increasingly elusive. The situation is worsened by the fear of reprisals from future political governments, of whichever stripe. And Chief Advisor Fakhruddin and his associates are finding themselves increasingly painted into a corner. When this interim government assumed power and prevented a violent political face-off between the BNP and the Awami League last year, they had the overwhelming popular support as their greatest political capital. One year on, much of that capital has been spent – or, rather, squandered outright.
When Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan in a bloodless coup in October 1999, he exiled then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and promised to prise politics loose from the culture of corruption and violence, carry out key economic reforms, and tackle the rising influence of political Islamists. Admittedly it is the Dhaka government’s critics who are now pointing to the uncanny similarities between that agenda and the one espoused by the current regime in Bangladesh, not to mention its obsession with the Minus Two formula – exiling the two begums – as the key to its success. But as the tragedy of Pakistan’s predicament unfolds before our eyes, perhaps the Dhaka regime would do well to draw some lessons from the outcome. It does seem as though the advisors and the generals of Dhaka will have to learn to live with the Plus Two formula.