Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh

Posted in Asia | 29-Apr-08 | Source: International Crisis Group

Dhaka/Brussels, 28 April 2008: The caretaker government, along with the international community, must take credible steps to restore democracy to Bangladesh ahead of the December 2008 general elections.

Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines developments since the military’s “quiet coup” of January 2007 and looks at prospects for new elections. Although the caretaker government insists its plans to stamp out corruption and hold general elections by December are on track, its achievements have been patchy.

“Even if elections are held on schedule, there is no guarantee reforms will be sustainable”, says Michael Shaikh, Crisis Group’s Asia Advocacy and Research Analyst. “But if they are delayed, the risk of confrontation between the parties and the army-backed government will only grow”.

On 11 January 2007, Bangladesh’s military installed a caretaker government, which used emergency powers to clamp down on violence in the run-up to bitterly contested elections. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had attempted to rig the polls, prompting the opposition Awami League to launch street protests. The caretaker government ended violence and raised hopes of political change, promising to tackle nepotism, infighting and corruption, which has included the jailing of the leaders of the two main political parties, the two ex-prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. While some progress has been evident, the suspension of democratic functioning, the arbitrary and partisan nature of the anti-corruption drive and the military’s effort to embed itself into the political process threaten to create many more problems than they solve.

There is an immediate need for dialogue between the government and the main parties. Any viable roadmap for elections 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 and democratic functioning such as addressing human rights abuses committed during the emergency during which over 400,000 arrests may have been made.

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.

“If the government cannot bring the parties on board, it would carry the immediate risk of violent clashes, and also increase the advantage militant Islamists are already quietly taking from the situation”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1601

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*Read the full Crisis Group report on our website:

The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.