ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47
Columns - Issue of the week

Bangladesh: Is the caretaker Govt. batting for the military?

By Ameen Izzadeen

Bangladesh's former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia

One of the healthiest features of Bangladesh democracy is a constitutional provision that ensures parliamentary elections are held under a neutral interim administration. This provision, designed to prevent election malpractices, came into operation in 1991 after military strongman Hussain Mohammed Ershad was overthrown in a people's revolution led by two rival parties — the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh National Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia. Since then, the system has worked generally well and has been much hailed in other Third World democracies as something worth emulating.

Usually, the interim caretaker administration headed by the country's figurehead president stays in office for three months within which elections should be held and a new government elected. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia ended her term in October last year and elections should have been held on January 22 this year. But that did not happen — and now the caretaker administration's decision to put off the polls and its campaign to arrest powerful politicians on corruption and crime charges have raised some concern.

What is causing a bigger concern is the military's involvement in state affairs. The caretaker government is backed and advised by Army Chief Moeen Ahmed, who in a recent speech delivered at a regional seminar dismissed the concept of elective democracy and said Bangladesh should evolve a balanced democracy based on its culture, religion, experience, etc. Is the military, which ruled Bangladesh for 15 long years after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman, who led the nation to independence in 1971 from Pakistan, planning a comeback?

The present crisis emerged with Khaleda handing over the reins to President Iajuddin Ahmed in October 2006 after her term ended. The Awami League and other political parties protested, saying Iajuddin Ahmed was biased towards Khaleda's BNP and such a person should not head the caretaker government. Months of violent protests finally saw the President stepping down in January 2007and handing over the caretaker administration to a person both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina had no problem with — a decision both of them are now ruing.

He is Fakhruddin Ahmed, former head of the country's central bank. He took over the country at a time when the President had cancelled elections and declared a state of emergency. The emergency rule has stood him in good stead in pursuing what he calls his campaign to rid the country of corruption and setting the stage for fair polls. But three months have long passed and signs of elections being held are not on the horizon.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, who holds the title of chief advisor to the interim government, says elections will be held before 2008. In an address to the nation on April 12, he said, "I would like to categorically state that we will not stay in power a day longer than is necessary. I strongly believe that it will be possible to hold the much-awaited parliamentary elections before the end of 2008." The emergency rule allows him to extend the three month period to two years. And who knows it could be extended even beyond two years?

Many things could happen during such a long period. However noble the caretaker administration's intentions are in cleaning up Bangladesh's politics, one must remember the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether the caretaker administration will be an exception to the temptations of power is yet to be seen. The Bangladeshi people appear to be endorsing the caretaker government's cleaning-up process but it is unlikely that the Bangladeshis who are known for their hyper activism in politics will stomach the deferment of the polls for any extended period.

But the caretaker government assures the people that it is creating a conducive atmosphere for the conduct of clean polls which would be contested by 'clean' candidates — not corrupt ones. "Our aim is fixed. We want to bring the corrupt, the abusers of power and serious criminals within the jurisdiction of existing laws as quickly as possible. …We will show zero-tolerance in this regard," Fakhruddin Ahmed told the nation during his address.

If the caretaker administration is what it says it is, then its actions should be condoned and supported. Certainly such cleaning up was long overdue in a country which was among the top ten corrupt countries for the past five years on the Transparency International annual list.

The caretaker government is going after Sheikh Hasina, opposition leader and former prime minister. Sheikh Hasina, who is now in the United States, is charged with the murder of four people in October last year. Her party members are advising her not to return as she faces imminent arrest. Her rival, Khaleda Zia, is in no better position. She is under virtual house arrest and is allowed to meet only four visitors a day. Her son, Tarique Rahman, who is the General Secretary of the BNP and political heir apparent, has been charged with obtaining a bribe of US $147,000 from a Dhaka construction firm. He was released on Tuesday as part of a deal with the government for Khaleda Zia and her family to go abroad, Bangladeshi newspapers reported.

Besides, hundreds of other political heavyweights and public officials have also been arrested on corruption charges. These are not trumped-up charges. The interim administration has delved into the bank accounts of these politicians and gathered evidence. Joining the caretaker government's battle against graft is the Bangladesh Bank, which said it has information regarding foreign bank accounts maintained by politicians and senior civil servants. Already, the caretaker government has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts of those politicians who are under investigation.

But the caretaker government itself has come under criticism, for it goes only after politicians and civil servants but would not touch the military which is backing it — or whose puppet it has become. For instance, a human rights group report says more than 150 people have been killed by the armed forces during the first three months of the state of emergency. Most of the victims were left wing activists. The caretaker government has chosen not to investigate these killings or bring those responsible to justice.
We hope the caretaker administration is not masquerading as champions of good governance and graft busters to allow the military to consolidate its position and stake a claim in the governance of the country. It has happened in Pakistan. Is it happening in Bangladesh?

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.