Bangladesh Government's Clean Up Act Might Backfire

The Bangladesh caretaker government is not giving up. This time it's a month-long nationwide drive against crime that has been launched. Beginning from May 30, over 12,000 have been arrested in the first week. The numbers will only multiply over the next few weeks. This was undertaken to address the deterioration in the law and order situation over the past few months. Significantly, ever since the caretaker government has taken over, the country has been under emergency conditions. According to an Amnesty report, the initial crackdown by the law enforcers had led to over 400,000 being arrested.

The caretaker government had taken upon itself the task of cleaning up a corrupt system. Soon after taking office on Jan 22, the Chief Advisor outlined a comprehensive seven-point 'reform' programme aimed at meeting 'people's demand' for uprooting corruption, introduction of voter identity cards and use of transparent ballot box to ensure 'an election participated by and acceptable to all.' The caretaker government has promised all necessary support to the Election Commission for holding parliamentary elections by the end of 2008. Indeed, by all accounts, the government has been serious about drawing up a correct voters' list and accordingly the issuance of voter identity cards.

But as the situation unfolds, the pertinent question to be asked is who will be free to fight the elections? While this crackdown will certainly lead to criminal elements being rounded up, the fear of political persecution happening alongside is not unfounded. As evident over the past 16 months, the government through its various anti-corruption measures and reform schemes has made sure that most of the leaders belonging to the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been kept under detention.

At the very outset, the interim government attempted to sideline Bangladesh's two most popular leaders Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Having failed to take out these two party heads, they were subsequently arrested on graft charges. In the course of another few months, most of the other leaders in both the parties were arrested over some corruption charge or other. Moreover, various reform measures have been introduced towards weakening the main political parties.

Days before the launch of the recent crackdown, the caretaker government also proposed introduction of an ordinance that would effectively prevent a large number of political leaders from taking part in the polls. The proposal to set up a Truth and Accountability Commission (TAC) is to make "people voluntarily admit their corruption, deposit ill-gotten wealth to the exchequer and seek pardon." This will enable all those facing charges of corruption to escape prosecution and a possible prison term if they agree to return their "ill gotten" wealth to the state. But this would also prevent the person from "holding any public office and executive positions in any collective bargaining agents, associations or banks or financial institutions."

While political parties are opposing the introduction of this commission, the past few months have witnessed the implementation of several reforms many of which have been widely appreciated including separation of the judiciary from the executive and an independent public service commission. The Anti- Corruption Committee was given extraordinary powers "to investigate, arrest or seize property" of the suspects "without any official permission". It also introduced an ordinance which disallows bail or any other legal remedy from any higher court until the corruption cases are resolved in a trial court - all of which can be used to marginalize political leaders.

On the other hand, despite the oft-repeated assurance by the caretaker chief, Fakhuruddin Ahmed, to abide by the elections road map, doubts have been raised about the government's intention to hold the elections. In fact, the stand of the Awami League and the BNP against participating in the elections without the release of their two leaders will provide the caretaker government the perfect ruse to further delay the polls, or conduct them without the top leaders in contention.

Arguably, while the two main political parties have been facing the brunt of the government's anti-corruption measures, the religious groups and political parties affiliated to them are largely left out of its scanner. The arrest of Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami in fact dispelled that allegation to some extent. The possibility of their cadres taking to the streets may have also been the raison d'tre behind the caretaker government's latest move. While religious political parties have not been dealt very harshly by this non-elected military-backed government, it would also be looking for easy ways to ease them out from the electoral system. Targeting the most successful religious political party would be an effective step towards making space for other hand-picked elements.

The recent strikes have virtually left the space open to some of the newly formed political parties like Gono Forum, Peoples Democratic Party, which seem to be having the blessing of the government. The government has an option of both postponing the elections if the main political parties are intransigent on their positions or announce the polls without any of the main leaders participating in it. This government would need a smooth exit which it is aware neither of the two parties is likely to offer them. According to the latest rumours doing the rounds, the caretaker government is trying to negotiate such a deal with the two leaders.

And if it postpones the elections, there will in all certainty be a severe backlash from the Bangladesh public as they have done on previous occasions. Despite the repeated demands by a cross section of the Bangladeshis to ease out, if not remove, the emergency, the caretaker government is tightening the noose rather than loosening it. If the government does not set limits to itself and accede to the general demand for return to democracy, it would have to face the risk of ignominy given the rising discontent among the masses. The government has tasted success on several fronts but to push its luck beyond 2008 may annul all the good work it had done.

Announcement of the election date by the caretaker government will not only assuage the public fears of the military increasing its stake in the polity but also lead to the political parties to engage in the electoral process positively and may also ensure the arrival of some new leaders in the new democratic horizon of Bangladesh.

(Sreeradha Datta is Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. She can be contacted at sreeradha@yahoo.com


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