Pseudo-innovation in Dhaka

Pseudo-innovation in Dhaka

The passion for taking Bangladesh back from the grip of near-self-immolation was in evidence at the premier of a documentary called Deshantori (The Migrant), in London in early February. Currently causing a stir among Bangladeshis both in and out of the country, Deshantori explores the deep frustration of today's young generation. It also asks why, 35 years after independence, a generation that was once making sacrifices to create a nation is now making sacrifices to leave the country by any means. During the discussion that took place after viewing the film, blame for this dynamic was invariably aimed at Bangladesh's political parties. Indeed, the parties form a topic – and target – that has been on the lip of every Bangladeshi in recent weeks.

Caption: President-in-shadow-Ahmed

As Dhaka's military-backed interim government gets on with its anti-corruption agenda amid cautious cheers from the public, Bangladeshis at home and abroad are arguing over what kind of government system can both be functional and deliver for the long-beleaguered people. With civil-society leaders moving towards a more hands-on political approach at the same time as politicians are being thrown in jail for alleged corruption, Bangladesh seems to be going through its biggest round of political shifts since the restoration of democracy in 1990. There was a widespread sense of the surreal when, during the first week of February, agitated MPs from the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who otherwise could never even sit together for a meeting, were suddenly packed up side by side in micro-buses and taken to Dhaka's Central Jail. The tables had turned. As news-paper story after story is published detailing the misdeeds of the immediate past BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami government, the picture that is emerging is not pretty. It portrays a reckless regard for rule of law and for Bangladesh's institutions. Whether the transgressions were as monstrous as misappropriating thousands of crores of taka and crippling the power sector by taking massive bribes from incompetent companies, or as relatively paltry as localised stealing of relief material, the fingerprints of former ruling-party MPs seem to be everywhere.

Nowhere is this damage more distressing to see than on the country's constitutional offices. The Public Service Commission, for example, the body responsible for appointing officers to public bodies, appears to have been practically selling question papers and government jobs to the highest bidders. The chief of the commission has been accused of sitting with a computer analyst and updating the result sheets of administration entrance examinees in exchange for handsome rewards. The surprise is not that such a thing had been taking place, but how open and unchallenged it was, with everyone from bottom to top sharing in the loot.

The malaise appears to be so deep-rooted that there is worry that as soon as the political parties are back in power, there will be an inevitable return to business-as-usual. Hence, there are petitions circulating, asking for a referendum to keep the interim government in power for longer than initially indicated. Regardless of the practicality of such a proposal, the current government is clearly enjoying huge popularity, and has larger changes in mind. Initially coming in with a mandate to do nothing more than hold a free and fair election by the end of January, the government's focus is now becoming more diverse and proactive. The advisers are taking policy decisions on matters such as corruption, the power sector and upgrading the Chittagong sea port – long-term issues that beg the question as to just how long they intend to remain in power.

Long-term interim
Thus far, no definitive timeline on that question has been given. Both the government-formed technical team and the army have made presentations about possible timeframes for drawing up a new voter list and distributing voter-identification cards. With the army stipulating a timeframe of eight months, the election is unlikely to take place before the end of this year. If that assumption is correct, it is likely the interim government will take more long-term decisions over the next nine months.

The army appears to be firmly behind the idea of a long-term engagement of the interim government. The previously low-profile military chief, Lieutenant General Moeen U Ahmed, has become significantly more visible in recent weeks, but has stressed that it is civilians, not the military, that are running the government. Taking on the unusual responsibility of talking about government policies, on 9 February he described Bangladesh's current state as that of a train off its track. He said that chances to fix things do not come often, and so the government is now trying to get the train back on track.

There is a split in Bangladeshi civil society, however, on just how much time the interim government should be given to do so. Some urge that institutional reform should be a priority no matter how much time it takes, while others suggest that the priority should be on setting a date for the elections, to avoid further erosion of the polity's democratic basis. Who wins this argument will determine the direction of Bangladeshi society in the days to come.

Regardless of what the military is saying, it seems clear that there are two parallel strands in the military combine. The first such sign came with the late-January promulgation of laws curbing press freedom, which pointed to a hard-line approach within the state of emergency. Two days later, amid widespread defiance from editors, the 'information adviser' backtracked and announced that the media-gagging laws were not going to be implemented after all. Those laws do remain in place, however, and the press has remained somewhat cautious about what it chooses to report.

The interim government appears keen to move quickly on the issue of corruption in politics. Government officials have stated in no uncertain terms that they view ensuring "clean" candidates for the election as being a critical part of their responsibilities. After reforming the anti-corruption commission, stern ordinances have been passed barring anyone accused of graft from taking part in the election, even if an appeal remains pending in court.

The political parties are now struggling to regroup. The BNP, which is taking the brunt of the anti-corruption drive with most of its leaders either in jail or absconding, is trying to figure out a response. The Awami League has started calling for an early election, as it senses a good possibility of victory in the current climate. Even though the caretaker government is largely implementing the AL's 31-point election-reform proposal from last year, the AL is neither getting any credit for it nor is it willing to wait much longer in fear of a regrouped BNP or a completely changed political landscape.

Citizen's power
With so much negative publicity about the politicians, Bangladeshis may have tuned out the traditional parties for the time being. Indeed, many seem to be enjoying the ride in uncharted territories. Civil-society leaders are suddenly wielding a lot of weight in policymaking, and can be seen everywhere – holding roundtables, putting in reform proposals and appearing on TV talk shows that are receiving higher ratings than the entertainment programmes.

Civil society is also fancying its own chances in politics. Recent Nobel Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, who has long been rumoured to harbour political ambitions, has now made it official that he will run for office in the coming election. To test the water about forming a party, he wrote an open letter to the country, asking for the people's opinion on his political aims. The positive response was overwhelming, and on 19 February Yunus announced the formation of the Nagarik Shakti (Citizen's Power) party, which promises to contest for all 300 parliamentary seats in the coming election.

It is tempting to think the Citizen's Power party will enjoy the support of civil-society leaders, the current administration and Western diplomats. But one cannot underestimate the grassroots activism of the existing major parties with their large networks. It remains to be seen what impact Yunus – without the Grameen brand – will have in the rural areas, where AL and BNP workers have long dominated. It may prove difficult to be effective on the national political scene depending on the stature of one individual.

News of the new competition seems already to have engendered some qualitative political changes. As Yunus is likely to pull in the independent and disenchanted vote, the political parties are scurrying to shore up their bases. The Awami League has already cancelled the heavily criticised memorandum of understanding it had signed with Islamist leaders. BNP honchos have also reportedly started a move inside the party to drop politicians who are known to be corrupt, and to bring back politicians who had been marginalised over the past five years by Tareq Rahman (Begum Khaleda Zia's son) and his powerful businessman friends.

As in other countries, Bangladeshis are starting to ask some core questions: If democracy can be manipulated to serve a chosen few, is it practical in developing countries? If democracy is defined by an election in which the winner takes all for the following five years, and where non-governance replaces accountability with the cost of destruction of democratic institutions, how is it possible to have a system in which checks and balances are required in order to prevent abuse?

For the time being, Bangladesh seems to be trying out a pseudo-innovative model. Tacitly supported by Western governments, the military has decided to be a behind-the-scenes force in backing the interim, non-elected civilian government, with an eye towards fixing the country's broken institutions before handing over democracy to the politicians again. However, history shows that, just as night follows day, military governments that start with a clean agenda end up as part of the problem. The exception this time around, it is hoped, is the blend of the might of the army and the good intentions and competence of the civilian administrators. Only time will tell how well this blend will work.

~ Asif Saleh is the founder and executive editor of Drishtipat, a Bangladeshi diaspora human-rights organisation based in London. He is also a regular op-ed contributor to Daily Star.

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