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The complex road to democracy in Bangladesh

bangladesh.jpgPakistan, Myanmar and Thailand all exemplify how the argument that democracy is not the appropriate system or the democratically elected leaders are corrupt helps the military elites control the country. Bangladesh, with the opposing forces of Begum Khaleda Zia [1] and Sheikh Hasina [2], could be added to this list. The upcoming postponed elections and the return of civil and political liberties appear to be the only way out of this narrow alley in which the provisional government has placed Bangladesh, states the author.

(From Madrid) GENERAL MOEEN U AHMED, the Bangladesh army strongman, declared that parliamentary democracy was not the best government model for this Muslim-majority Asian country, since it had not worked over the last 15 years. Perhaps the general was toying with the idea of a new coup d’état in order to consolidate the army’s growing influence in the political sphere, but in any case he underestimated the vitality of the complex democratic experience in Bangladesh.

“Khaleda Zia’s party has governed together with Islamic groups and defends the construction of a strongly religious type of nationalism; Hasini’s Awami League is a defender of a secular State” The final phase of said process, which is rather unknown internationally (given that Bangladesh does not possess natural resources like Iraq, and is not is a strategic country like Pakistan) began in the beginning of the 1990s. During the past 15 years, the democratic political life in Bangladesh has revolved around a clash between two women; ex-Prime minister, and president of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP [3]), Begum Khaleda Zia [1], and ex-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina [2], head of the Awami League [4].

In 1991, these two leaders headed a popular democratic movement to end the presidency of the military coup leader, Hossain Mohammad Ershad [5], and return democracy to Bangladesh. However, the alliance did not survive beyond the success of the struggle, and both have starred in the story of their personal clash (from which there has been no respite whatsoever), which has marked the country’s political development in the past few years, during which the two of them have taken turns as the Head of State: Khaleda Zia (1991-1996; 2001-2006) and Hasina (1996-2001).

THE TWO BEGUMS OF BANGLADESH

Both Hasina and Khaleda Zia are known in South Asia as the two begums of Bangladesh. Begum is an honorary title that is bestowed upon women of prestige and social status in the region. Normally, they belong to the aristocracy, but in this case it has a connotation of political leadership.

“Hasin criticized this appointment of Iajuddin Ahmed, since she did not consider the new president (a former soldier) to be a neutral figure” There is an ideological basis to their clash, given that Khaleda Zia’s party has governed together with Islamic groups and defends the construction of a strongly religious type of nationalism, whereas Hasini’s Awami League is a defender of a secular State. However, a more personal matter has fueled the clash: determining who had been the key person in the fight for Bangladesh’s independence, obtained in the beginning of the 1970’s. Had it been Khaleda Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman [6] ,or Hasina’s father, the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman [7]?

The clash between these two politicians and their respective followers reached such epic proportions of high tension that the Bangladeshi parliament had to design an innovative electoral method: the prime minister had to resign months before the election and hand power over to a neutral provisional government so that the latter could manage and legitimize the electoral process, with the purpose of avoiding accusations of favorable treatment to the outgoing government.

A STATE OF EMERGENCY AND RUPTURE OF CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER

“In spite of the military’s efforts, political forces capable of substituting the BNP or the Awami League in the public’s collective conscience have not emerged” At the end of her last five year term in office, in October 2006, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia handed the government over to a provisional administration run by the current president, Iajuddin Ahmed [8]. Hasin criticized this appointment, since she did not consider the new president (a former soldier) to be a neutral figure, and as such demanded his resignation and initiated a protest campaign in the streets that would last for several months.

Using political party corruption and a possible civil confrontation as excuses, the army decreed a state of emergency in January 2007, and postponed the elections until 2008. The new government undertook an anticorruption crusade that has put dozens of political leaders and businessmen in jail, as well as the two civil leaders, against whom several penal trials have been opened.

“The Yunus-led Graneen Bank’s work in rural areas, especially with women, appears to be beginning to yield some results”General Moeen U Ahmed’s declarations come at a critical moment for this new autocratic government, given that the accusations of corruption against the two political rivals, Khaleda Zia and Hasin, have not translated into actual legal sentences against them, and both continue to enjoy popular support. In spite of the military’s efforts, political forces capable of substituting the BNP or the Awami League in the public’s collective conscience have not emerged either.

THE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY AND ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTERS

“Another demonstration of the advances made is the fact that the rapid alert systems in the face of natural disasters that were implemented by the corrupt democratic administrations have also taken effect” In parallel with this political skirmish, the civil society seems to be constructing a better future for Bangladesh. The economist Muhammad Yunus [9] (the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2006 for his fight to achieve a fairer economy for the poor, and champion of the concept of microcredits) is one of the country’s most influential figures, despite the fact that he turned down of the position of provisional prime minister of the current civil government supported by the military.

Yunus heads the Grameen Bank [10], whose work in rural areas, especially with women, appears to be beginning to yield some results. According to the World Bank’s latest report, Bangladesh, which is one of the poorest countries in Asia, managed to reduce its poverty level by eight percent in the last five years before the current provisional government. “The international players should pressure the leadership into returning the ability to continue constructing its own democratic path to the Bangladeshi people” In spite of the lack of a regional trade framework and economic synergy with its neighbors India and Myanmar, and the existing political conflicts, this type of policy provides hope that there will be a prominent reduction in poverty in the upcoming years.

Another demonstration of the advances made is the fact that the rapid alert systems in the face of natural disasters that were implemented by the corrupt democratic administrations have also taken effect. This past November, Cyclone Sidr devastated the southern coast of the country, resulting in approximately two thousand deaths. The rapid alert systems implemented during Khaleda Zia’s last term worked, allowing the government to evacuate one million people and mobilize 40,000 volunteers, which, together with international emergency aid, contributed to an efficient response in the tasks of management crisis and reconstruction.

ASIAN SOLDIERS’ INVOLVEMENT IN THE POLITICAL SCENE

It is interesting to observe the similarities between the situation in Bangladesh and those in the other Asian countries close-by, like Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand. In all of these cases, the argument that democracy is not the appropriate system, or the corruption of the democratically elected leaders, has been used by military leaders to seize control of the country. Within the peaceful framework of the democratic debate is precisely where it is possible to find lasting solutions to the challenges of a country like Bangladesh, offering a public space to offset diverging visions (Islamic and secular ones, for example).

The upcoming postponed elections and the return of civil and political liberties appear to be the only way out of this narrow alley in which the provisional government has placed Bangladesh. Along this line, the international players, especially the countries that donate humanitarian aid, and cooperate, should pressure the leadership into returning the ability to continue constructing its own democratic path to the Bangladeshi people, even if it be as complicated as the one created in the past few years with the dialectic opposition between the two begums.