From the brink

Print edition : February 09, 2007

The proclamation of a state of emergency and the postponement of general elections end weeks of political violence in Bangladesh.

HAROON HABIB in Dhaka

President Iajuddin Ahmed, who resigned as Chief Adviser to the caretaker government.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

ON January 11, Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed resigned from the post of Chief Adviser to the non-party caretaker government, the additional role he had assumed in October last to oversee the conduct of free and fair elections. Soon afterwards, the President declared a state of emergency, a measure that cancelled the controversial parliamentary elections and was aimed at tackling the widespread political violence over the electoral process. On January 3, the Awami League-led 19-party alliance quit the election race and announced it would resist the "one-sided" polls by all means. The alliance, headed by Sheikh Hasina, demanded that the President should give up his additional post. In a clear volte-face days ahead of the January 22 polls, the President admitted that a level playing field had not been created for the elections.

In an address to the nation, he said that he was declaring a state of emergency in order to maintain overall stability and conduct credible and participatory elections. He identified the conditions necessary to hold free, fair and neutral elections, most important among them being a faultless voter list, until now largely absent, and stated that elections held without the participation of all major parties would not be acceptable. Iajuddin Ahmed, whose assumption of the office of the Chief Adviser on October 29, 2006, was questioned for its legality, admitted that his dual responsibility and his actions thereafter had "divided" the nation.

Bangladesh now has a second caretaker government within the framework for one. A new government, headed by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, a reputed economist and a former Governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in on January 12. The new Chief Adviser has constituted a council of advisers to form the interim government.

During his tenure as the Chief Adviser, President Iajuddin Ahmed took various unilateral steps that deepened the political crisis.

His partisan decision to deploy the armed forces on December 9 to face the political agitation, disregarding strong objections from his council of advisers, heightened tensions in the country. Four of the 10 advisers resigned in protest. "The Chief Adviser must make things clear through an immediate address to the nation whether the government is caretaker or interim," demanded Dr. Akbar Ali Khan, one of the advisers who resigned.

Independent observers said Bangladesh's constitutional politics suffered greatly because of Iajuddin Ahmed's caretaker government, which was virtually remote-controlled by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led alliance headed by Khaleda Zia, which was in power until he took over.

The public reaction to the emergency has been positive. The reason is obvious: the prolonged political uncertainty and social disorder have been put to rest. The biggest relief was the postponement of the elections, which had generated a fear of imminent social and political unrest.

However, the emergency measures have so far been less intrusive than on previous occasions - the curfew was withdrawn within 24 hours of its imposition, the print media have been allowed to work without visible interference and the electronic media have gone back to regular news coverage.

The positive public reaction to what has undoubtedly been an unpleasant turn of events is attributed to the installation of Fakhruddin Ahmed, who has a sterling professional track record and a clean image, as the new head of government.

Nonetheless, Bangladesh's democracy and development now needs genuine elections, which can only be possible through the policies the new government plans to pursue. Iajuddin's caretaker government, in collaboration with the BNP-Jamaat alliance, pushed the country to the brink of sustained lawlessness and bloody violence. The proclamation of emergency has pre-empted the downslide to utter disorder.

The new interim administrator, Fakhruddin Ahmed.-PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT, BANGLADESH/AP

However, there is no reason to believe that the feuding political camps have buried their hatchets. While the Opposition alliance seemingly endorsed the change, the Khaleda-led combine was conspicuously absent at the oath-taking ceremony of the new caretaker administration, probably shocked by the developments that had torpedoed its plan to recapture power. In the changed political context, the Awami League-led alliance has called off its action programmes of hartals and blockades.

Analysts are of the view that the success of the new administration would depend on how it handles the bitter political rivals and ensures their participation in the elections.

By all indications, the elections may be delayed. Some advisers of the newly constituted government, including Moinul Hossain and Major-General (retd.) Matin, expect it to last for "at least six months". The new government will first have to prepare a correct voters' list and then undertake the tasks of introducing voters' identity cards and depoliticising the police, the intelligence establishment and the civil administration, as demanded by the Hasina group, before announcing the poll dates. One of the new advisers, Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, told reporters that it was difficult at this moment to speculate on when the elections would be held. "We will do everything that a free, fair and peaceful election requires." Informed sources told Frontline that the caretaker government was preparing a fresh proposal for the political parties. It is also planning to reorganise the Election Commission.

The Awami League-led alliance and the BNP-led four-party alliance have asked the caretaker authority to hold the elections within the shortest possible time. The Hasina-led group said the caretaker government should hand over power to an elected government by holding free and fair polls within a "certain period of time". Some parties even demanded elections by April.

There are also media reports that the BNP-led alliance may boycott the elections since its well-orchestrated plan to win the polls has been frustrated. Describing the declaration of a state of emergency as "a temporary action", the BNP National Standing Committee hoped that necessary steps would be taken to hand over power to elected representatives "as early as possible".

The beleaguered Jatiya Party (J.P.) chairman H.M. Ershad, who as President had declared a state of emergency on November 27, 1990, and resigned from his office nine days later following a mass upsurge, has welcomed the new measures. They were also well received by the BNP rebel group, the Liberal Democratic Party, a coalition partner of the League led by Prof. Badrudouzza Choudhury and Col. Oli Ahmed. Calling Iajuddin's resignation a "people's victory", Awami League general secretary Abdul Jalil said, "His [the President's] speech has proved the legitimacy of our demands and actions."

A total of 12,000 people, mostly belonging to the BNP and the Awami League, have been arrested by the joint forces of the Army, the police, the Bangladesh Rifles and the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as part of their anti-crime and anti-corruption crackdown.

Barring some incidents of undue harassment, the drive has received wide endorsement. The joint forces have been conducting raids to arrest influential persons, such as Giasuddin al-Mamoon, the controversial billionaire and close friend of Tarique Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia. But so far they have succeeded in arresting only the foot soldiers. The news of the arrests of petty criminals and student cadre is being published in all newspapers to whet the appetite of the masses.

The state of emergency has been welcomed at the international level too. The United States said the government was compelled to declare emergency following the political parties' failure to resolve their differences through dialogue. British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury said it was unfortunate that circumstances had forced the declaration of a state of emergency. "However we broadly welcome the potential opportunity for conditions to be established that are conducive to credible elections with full participation," he said. However, both the U.S. and Britain have disagreed with the view that they had favoured a state of emergency as a means to resolve the political impasse. In a significant move, the United Nations withdrew its election observers from Bangladesh when it became clear that a credible electoral process was not possible.

India said it was "closely studying the evolving situation", and added: "It remains our hope that the people of Bangladesh will be allowed to exercise their democratic right to choose their own government in a free and fair process through credible election in which all major political parties are in a position to participate." China said it was very much concerned about the developments in Bangladesh.

Riot policemen lathicharge a group of activists who tried to overrun a police barricade in front of the presidential palace in Dhaka on January 9.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

Fakhruddin Ahmed's first and foremost step should be to restore the image of the caretaker government, which took a severe pounding under Iajuddin Ahmed. Independent observers say that the new authority, being non-elected, should remember its limits and act accordingly, although pressures were being mounted on it to cleanse society of crime, terrorism and corruption, which had risen to alarming levels during the tenure of Khaleda Zia.

The question that confounds analysts is: who is behind the dramatic changes since October 29, 2006? Who persuaded President Iajuddin to relinquish his office of Chief Adviser, which neither he nor his mentors wanted him to give up?

While there was no overt involvement of the Army in changing the situation, except that it had been officially deployed, it is felt that it acted behind the scenes to bring about the welcome change. The Bangladesh media reported that the three service chiefs had expressed their desire to be members of the advisory council. However, there was no independent confirmation of this. Media reports also suggested that the top brass of the services had met the President before he announced his resignation. However, Abdul Jalil appreciated the "role of the Army" in reconstituting the new caretaker government.

It appears from the current developments that the new administration has formulated a five-point action plan: A drive to clean up the biased electoral machinery; efforts to improve governance by the civil service; an anti-corruption drive that would cleanse the nation's politics; depoliticisation of the judiciary; and reformation of the crippled power sector.

Already it has taken effective steps to separate the judiciary from the executive, a landmark step that the political governments failed to accomplish. What the BNP could not do in five years, Fakhruddin's administration was able to accomplish in less than a week.

Meanwhile, there is speculation on why the military did not take over power. Many observers say that the Bangladesh military, which has been receiving lucrative assignments from the U.N. to serve on peace-keeping missions, might miss the opportunity. Others say the Bangladesh Army understands well that the issue at hand is a political one, and requires a political solution. Interestingly, the BNP's strong ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, considers activities of some diplomatic missions as the main reason for the declaration of a state of emergency. Perturbed by the turn of events, the fundamentalist party's ameer (chief), Matiur Rahman Nizami, who was a senior Minister in the Khaleda Cabinet, said, "The role of some diplomats indicates that they still think Bangladesh as their colony."

Increasingly, there has been a tendency in some influential quarters to blame the politicians for all the ills. The recent observation by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus that the politicians are only in it for the money drew wide criticism.

In a recent interview to a European news agency, Yunus said Bangladesh was tired of months of unrest and blockades."It's about power, power to make money. There is no ideological thing, simply who gets the bigger booty," he said. His comments are "unfortunate", the Awami League said, while the BNP found Yunus' remarks "not acceptable".

But Yunus is not alone. The recent political developments have been welcomed in several quarters, including the media. Some have even suggested a longer period of "civil society rule" as "politicians have failed".

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