Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh
Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 151 / Asia

Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is under military rule again for the third time in as many decades.

Executive Summary

Bangladesh is under military rule again for the third time in as many decades. Although the caretaker government (CTG) insists its plans to stamp out corruption and hold general elections by December 2008 are on track, its achievements have been patchy, and relations with the major political parties are acrimonious. Efforts to sideline the two prime ministers of the post-1990 democratic period have faltered (though both are in jail), and the government has become bogged down in its attempts to clean up corruption and reshape democratic politics. Even if elections are held on schedule, there is no guarantee reforms will be sustainable. If they are delayed, the risk of confrontation between the parties and the army-backed government will grow. There is an urgent need for all sides to negotiate a peaceful and sustainable return to democracy.

The army’s intervention on 11 January 2007 was widely welcomed for preventing a slide into extensive violence. Activists of the opposition Awami League had stepped up street protests against efforts by the outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government to rig elections. Clashes had led to some 50 deaths by the end of 2006, and there was no compromise in sight. The CTG, headed by technocrats but controlled by the military, quickly ended street violence and raised hopes of political change, promising to tackle the corruption, nepotism and infighting that had crippled fifteen years of elected governments. It used wide-ranging emergency powers and argued that the exceptional situation, not envisaged by the constitution, legitimised its extended tenure and ambitious program. Its goals attracted support from key international backers.

Some progress is evident. The creation of a new electoral roll, with photographic voter identity cards, is underway; the government has begun to separate the judiciary from the executive; and it has reconstituted the Election and Public Service Commissions – essential preliminaries to more extensive reforms of the electoral system and the bureaucracy. Its anti-corruption drive has targeted powerful politicians and their protégés. Debilitating hartals (general strikes) that sapped business confidence and disrupted daily life have been banned. 

However, despite some continued support from civil society and the international community, the government’s honeymoon is over. There is now fear the government is undermining the very democratic institutions it set out to rescue. In its first year in power, the government made some 440,000 arrests ostensibly linked to its anti-corruption drive, creating a climate of fear in the country. Its poor handling of the economy and natural disasters has aggravated underlying scepticism over its real intentions. The continued state of emergency and efforts to undermine popular politicians and split their parties have left many questioning its sincerity. Former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina weathered clumsy attempts to force them into exile. They are both under detention facing corruption charges but still dominate their parties, and their popularity may get a boost if their prosecutions are seen as unfair.

The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the military intelligence agency and the engine of military government, has been careful to avoid being front and centre, but serving and retired officers have been placed in critical positions, from the Election Commission to the National Coordination Committee heading the anti-corruption drive. Senior officers assert that the army has no desire to get its hands dirty and would rather stay out of politics altogether. They remember the messy collapse of past military regimes and are concerned about their and their army’s international reputation and peacekeeping role. Still, there have been persistent signals that the army would like to institutionalise a degree of continuing influence after elections. In any event, it will have difficulty extricating itself from politics with its prestige intact, unless it can negotiate a graceful exit strategy with the parties.

There is an immediate need for dialogue between the government and the main parties. Any viable roadmap for elections and a smooth return to democracy has to be agreed by all major actors. The first step must be to address mistrust between the two sides, as well as the acrimonious relations between the Awami League and BNP. Ideally, a new consensus would not only cover how to hold elections but also develop commitments on post-election behaviour (including sustaining institutional reforms and anti-corruption measures) and democratic functioning (including safeguarding human rights and political pluralism).

Failure to negotiate would invite confrontation. Student unrest in August 2007 showed how quickly frustration with military rule can boil over. Two floods, a devastating cyclone and rising food prices have left many Bangladeshis hungry and the CTG struggling to assert that the politicians it imprisoned on corruption charges would be equally unable to handle the food crisis. If the government cannot bring the politicians along to help it cope with soaring food prices, the parties are likely to channel popular discontent into street protests. This would carry the immediate risk of violent clashes; it would also increase the advantage militant Islamists are already quietly taking from the situation.

International actors who have too placidly accepted the government’s rationale and supported its agenda should recognise that the priority is to maintain pressure for timely and credible elections. They should also be prepared to act as a possible guarantor to facilitate a delicate transfer of power and to support a longer-term program of sustainable reforms to put the country’s democracy back on track.

Dhaka/Brussels, 28 April 2008

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