Bangladesh: Democracy Saved or Sunk?

Many in Bangladesh are relieved that the military stepped in to liberate them from political chaos. But this move has set the country on a slippery slope to authoritarian rule. In the long run, the best formula for success is to build Bangladesh into a showcase for democracy in the Islamic world.

FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty ImagesGuardians of democracy? Bangladeshs new authoritarian rulers are destroying whats left of the countrys democratic institutions.

On January 11, Bangladesh began yet another tumultuous political transformation. A caretaker government backed by the military took over power, declared a state of emergency, and postponed national elections. Most Bangladeshis sighed relief.

Within weeks, the newly installed government began a war against corruption, arresting scores of top politicians in dramatic midnight raids and sending them straight to prison. Most Bangladeshis became exuberant, and many are demanding summary trials for the corrupt.

While stressing that democracy needs to be restored eventually, foreign diplomats also cheered on the new governments assertive line. The British High Commissioner said he was pleased with the approach that was taken, and more recently, the U.S. assistant secretary of state said his country was strongly supportive of the reform steps. After a 16-year experiment with democracy, Bangladeshs return to authoritarianism feels to many like a refreshing change.

It wasnt always like this. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations used to hail Bangladesh as an example to the rest of the Islamic world: a moderate Muslim democracy. As recently as 2002, public support for democracy was overwhelming in the country, as several surveys showed. Bangladesh enjoyed secular institutions and a growing economy. It held regular elections, and power rotated between the two major parties, the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the center-left Awami League. But, despite the publics commitment to democratic institutions, contempt was growing against the many politicians who regularly subverted those institutions.

That contempt peaked toward the end of BNPs 200106 tenure. The partys reign had been anything but democratic. With its Islamist allies, it had gone on a rampage against political and religious minorities. Its feared paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion, operated with impunity, and extrajudicial deaths jumped to nearly 400 in 2005, a 20-fold increase from the average during the Awami League administration (19962001). Corruption had become so rampant that Transparency International rated Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world four out of the last five years. Extortion was commonplace, especially for businesses. Some could not even pay their utility bills without bribing someone. Gruesome terrorist attacks took place, but the cases went mysteriously unsolved. Finally, BNP tried to rig the January 2007 elections, a move that was protested en masse by the opposition, and the country came to a standstill. Thats when the military intervened.

With these conditions, Bangladeshis could be forgiven for welcoming their new military rulers with open arms. After the chaos of the past six years, who can blame them?

The new caretaker governments stated goal is to save democracy by ensuring a level playing field before holding elections. In the process, it wants to change the system comprehensively, involving everything from how political parties operate, to the authority of the courts, to the balance of power between the president and the prime minister, to even considering a National Charter to rival the Constitution.

All this is a familiar refrain. From Burma and Pakistan in the 1950s to Thailand or Fiji in 2006, saving democracy or saving the nation through enacting large-scale reforms has been the common pretext for authoritarian power grabs. Bangladesh itself experienced such takeovers in 1975, 1977, and 1982.

Already, there are troubling signs that the countrys new authoritarian order may be more than just temporary. The caretaker governments drive to clean up politics has reached far beyond the top rungs of power. As of early April, more than 70 people have been killed extrajudicially. More than 100,000 people many of them mid-level workers of various political partieshave been detained so far, often without charges, and thousands more are being added every day in what amounts to a massive political purge.

To speed up the process, the government has substantially increased its authority to arrest without charges, deny bail, and conduct summary trials. It has curtailed the right of citizens to appeal its verdicts. Military personnel now head most of the important administrative committees, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission. A powerful National Security Council is in the works that will allow authorities to interpret political issues as security issues.

As for elections, the civilian face of the government has dismissed any possibility of holding them in the next year and a half. The Army chief has gone much farther, declaring outright in a recent speech, We do not want to go back to an elective democracy, and proposing that some kind of a homegrown system be devised as an alternative.

This is exactly what Islamists, happy to see the principle of popular sovereignty eviscerated, want to hear. But a homegrown system could be disastrous for both national and regional stability. Accustomed to political freedom, Bangladeshis would eventually resist authoritarianism, ushering in another round of violent conflict.

This unsavory outcome can only be nipped through continuous pressure on the temporary government. But because political activity is banned and fundamental rights are suspended, its up to outside powers to take the lead, especially in four key areas.

First, Western diplomats should keep pressing the government to announce an election date soon. The caretaker government is going well beyond its initial mandate of organizing elections. It is making major policy decisions that should be the preserve of an elected government.

Second, international organizations and trading partners should resist the urge to cut easy deals. Sensing quick wins, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are pushing policy reform initiatives, while individual countries, like India and China are dangling lucrative business agreements. Big contracts signed away from the public eye will reopen doors for corruption.

Third, Britain, the United States, and the European Union should insist that the government restore fundamental rights. Its current path of rule by fiat threatens to destroy the very political and legal institutions that need to be revived from the damage wrought on them in the last six years.

Finally, Western powers should support the democratic process and resist the urge to pick preordained winners. The entry of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace laureate, who wants to form a political party in which power would be decentralized, has shaken up the dinosaurs of BNP and Awami League. The ongoing political purge will improve his electoral prospects. Some, however, want to hold off elections in favor of an appointed, Palestinian-style national unity government. More extreme would be a Pakistan-style outcome, in which a secular military dictatorship acts as a U.S. ally in its war on terror. As tempting as these options may be, the West must let Bangladeshis decide for themselves through free elections, held reasonably soon. For a working democracy that protects fundamental rights would be a much better showcase for the larger Islamic world than another pliable regime whose domestic legitimacy is becoming increasingly questionable.

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