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Waiting for the Bangladesh Verdict

Waiting for the Bangladesh Verdict

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Bangladesh is scheduled to go to the polls on December 29. Does this mean that, in less than a week, the South Asian subcontinent would have returned to secure democracy?

Yes, clearly, if one goes only by the calendar of events. Pakistan returned to democracy in February 2008, after about nine long years of military rule. Nepal overthrew a despotic monarchy in 2006 after a decade of civil war, and held elections to a constituent assembly in April 2008. By holding general elections, which the army called off in January 2007, Bangladesh will bar the path to yet another military regime after 37 years of turbulence.

Nepal's is a special case that deserves separate treatment. The more relevant example of Pakistan, however, should suffice to show why the elections alone do not guarantee a safe democracy in Bangladesh.

No debate exactly rages over either the health of Pakistan's hard-regained democracy or the factors behind its state of debilitation. There is no doubt that a people's revolt against military rule, defended by some as benevolent dictatorship and a barrier to terrorism in the region, paved the way for the installation of an elected government in Islamabad. Categorically, too, the voters of Pakistan rejected religious-fundamentalist parties even in frontier areas where they were supposed to be a force.

Ironically, however, the new dispensation faces its direst threats from the religious fundamentalist fringe, with more than merely suspected links within the country's armed forces and intelligence service.

On its comeback trail, democracy in Bangladesh faces the same twin threats.

The threat from self-styled jihadis (a large number of peace-loving Muslims consider the label unjust to the religion) has already found an election eve illustration. Reports of a death threat to Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League (AL), one of the two main parties in the poll fray, have already caused a region-wide alarm.

According to unidentified intelligence sources, a six-member suicide squad has been assigned to assassinate Hasina, associated with more secular policies than her political rivals. The squad is said to be under the command of the extra-parliamentary extremist outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI-B).

The reports carry credibility because fundamentalists have targeted Hasina before. In August 2004, an explosion at a large public meeting, which she was addressing, killed 24 and left hundreds injured. The former prime minister also suffered a serious ear impairment, from which she has yet to recover.

No South Asian observer can but take the threat with utmost seriousness after the tragic assassination of another former prime minister. Investigations in the case of Benazir Bhutto's assassination are still incomplete, but her own Pakistan People's Party (PPP) sees the bloodstained hand of terrorists in the Karachi blasts that killed hundreds beside her.

The authorities, who claim to take the reports seriously, have tightened Hasina's security - even asking her not to lower the windows of her car in order to wave to crowds. Increased protection has been provided also for her political adversary, Begum Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). But all this, obviously, does not make transition to democracy in the anxiously awaiting nation terrorism proof.

It does not because terrorism has more than tenuous links with electoral, parliamentary politics as well. Among the parties in the fray is Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), one of the BNP's allies. The religious party, of course, officially distances itself from the HuJI-B and other similar extremist outfits. But the policies and the platform of the JeI create space for fundamentalist terrorism, as they did while it shared power with the BNP.

In its election manifesto, the JeI has pledged enactment of a blasphemy law and military training for students of Islamic seminaries (madrassas). The blasphemy law - preventing criticism of religion in books, newspapers or electronic media and harsh punishment for those responsible - may be modeled on the one that already wreaked much sociopolitical havoc in Pakistan and helped terrorist forces considerably there. The proposed military training in madrassas can also produce extremists in outwardly education institutions as has happened again in Pakistan, particularly in the frontier areas.

Both the AL and the BNP have placed "tackling terrorism in cooperation with other South Asian neighbors" high on their agendas. The BNP, however, may not have exactly helped this objective by calling upon the people to vote the party to power in order to "save Islam."

The role of the army, too, remains an imponderable on the road map to enduring democracy in Bangladesh. A Musharraf-type military rule may not have preceded the elections, but the army has certainly been the power behind the throne in Dhaka for nearly two years now.

Army chief Moeen U. Ahmed has conducted himself in a manner closely similar to the dislodged Pakistani president's bumbling efforts to keep democracy at bay. If Musharraf sent Benazir and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League into exile, the Bangladeshi general, too, tried to throw Hasina and Khaleda out of the country. Moeen succeeded for a while in Hasina's case, and only the power of world public opinion helped her return home in time for the hustings.

Even as recently as February 2008, the general visited New Delhi to press for India's assistance in dissuading Hasina and Khaleda from contesting elections and paving the way for a return to democracy of a kind he detested. He has been on record, ruling out a return to "an elective democracy." He has also asserted that the country had tried "Westminster-type parliamentary democracy for the last 15 years," but could not make it work. He has repeatedly called for "a form of democracy that is suitable for us."

As in Pakistan, again, a popular movement against a prolonged army-backed rule and for restoration of "elective democracy" made it extremely difficult for the general to proceed with his promised political experiment. Campus unrest of August 2007, combined with protests against price rises, compelled the caretaker government to consider sending the army back to the barracks. The momentum for general elections has proven inexorable since then.

Democratic parties and forces will be deluding themselves if they rule out the return of the army to the political scene. This remains a distinct possibility, all the more because of the friendly relations between at least sections of the armed forces and the fundamentalists.

Opponents of democracy will have a fresh opportunity if the event of December 29 ends in an inconclusive verdict of the people. It is hard to see the contending parties agreeing to form a stable coalition in the event of a hung parliament resulting from the election, as predicted by some pundits. This will be a matter of jubilation only for generals, to whom elective democracy is an object of derision.

All of South Asia has stakes in the safe and smooth passage of Bangladesh to democracy, as in the preservation of a representative civilian dispensation in Pakistan.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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