Current Bangladesh Time: 6:08:06 PM (Wed)

Will there be Elections in 2008?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Mahboobur Rahman’s recent article in Weekly Blitz, “Rigidity of both AL & BNP foils government’s efforts,” should cause readers to wonder if the caretaker government will come through on its promise to hold democratic elections before the end of 2008. Bangladeshi representatives in Washington continue to stand behind their previous assurances to the US State Department that the elections will proceed as scheduled on December 18; but one source speaking on the condition of anonymity told me that he is not so sure. He refused to say, however, how the government would explain itself if the elections were not held this year. And while there are some explanations for a postponement that the US and others might accept, the closer we get to the election date, the less likely that becomes.

Since the spring, I had been counseling a proactive course to prepare the international community—and especially the United States whose imports drive the Bangladeshi economy—for the possibility of no elections in 2008. That course, however, involves a measure of transparency and honesty, qualities that Washingtonians do not associate with Bangladesh’s representatives. Because that was not heeded, any postponement will now be laid at the feet of the current government. When western powers pressed for a commitment to hold elections in 2008, the government assented instead of taking a stand as, for instance, the Turkish military has in several similar situations and making it clear that genuine elections might not be possible by the end of 2008. In other words, it over promised. The caretaker government committed itself to accomplishing something that was frankly not within its control. Bangladesh’s track record in Washington of broken promise after broken promise regardless of individual ambassadors and governments only exacerbates the situation. Many in DC were hoping that the current government was bringing something new to the table.

And so were most Bangladeshis. The day after the military's intervention on January 11, 2007, it was impossible to find any Bangladeshi not happy about it—except, of course, those who had reason to fear being called to account for their past misdeeds. I had arrived in the capital three days earlier with just under two weeks before scheduled elections. The situation was chaotic with Awami League head Sheikh Hasina publicly calling for her followers to “shut down the country,” with violence if necessary; and her followers were listening to her. She did this even though the international community already supported her contention that rival Bangladesh National Party (BNP) had rigged the upcoming elections in their favor. In fact, in a historically unparalleled move, every western democracy was urging the Bangladeshis not to hold their election, so transparent was BNP’s fraud. With both major parties now out of control and a far more dangerous situation looming for Bangladeshis, the military intervened.

The new government started out with a pledge to sweep away the corruption that was preventing truly free elections. It fearlessly arrested corrupt former officials who had been robbing the people of Bangladesh for decades with complete impunity. With the arrests of Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia, it looked like the government was trying to create an entirely new political dynamic in the country and exclude the old parties from any new elections. Donor and importing nations were quiet at first, speaking in general platitudes about “speedy” elections and leaving it to the government to define what speedy is. The government could have referred to its gargantuan task of undoing decades of corruption, inefficiency, and sponsorship of radical Islam; but rather than insisting on Bangladesh’s sovereign right to determine when elections would bring real democracy to its people, it scurried to placate the international community. Nor did it take any action when groups with ties to the BNP and especially Awami labeled it as a military dictatorship in many of those capitals. Once that happened, the same powers that called for the 2007 election to be halted insisted on holding them now. Thus was squandered a great deal of time and Bangladesh’s ability to control its own destiny.

Recent negotiations with the two major parties have brought the process full circle. There is no evidence that either party is any different today than in January 2007. Yet the caretaker government has tacitly let the parties know that their participation is critical for the election’s credibility. How bizarre is that? The two parties responsible for a halt to the 2007 elections are now told they are necessary for elections. Nor has their participation been made contingent on actions to end their corruption, sponsorship of radicals, and oppression of minorities. What assurances do the people of Bangladesh have that they will not see a return to the previous status quo when Awami and BNP both used the Bangladeshi treasury as their personal ATM machines? How can the tens of millions of minorities see any hope in either party? There also is no evidence that the caretaker government tried to make a case for itself with the international community. Its Anti-Corruption Committee had uncovered piles of evidence indicting the parties and their leaders with massive corruption. Figures on the amount of spoils Awami and BNP reaped from the racist Vested Property Act are alone enough to discredit them before the international community; but that was never done.

Fixing the mess is not impossible, but time is running out for this government to avoid the inevitable consequences of its inaction. Bangladeshis now face a twin dilemma: either postpone the promised elections and face potential sanctions from nations whose aid and imports are critical for the economy; or saddle the people of Bangladesh with the same bad government and massive corruption they had know for decades.