Insights and Analysis

In Bangladesh: One Year After State of Emergency Declared

February 13, 2008

By Kim McQuay

On January 11, 2008, Bangladesh quietly marked the first anniversary of the state of emergency and appointment of a military-backed Caretaker Government. A year earlier, Bangladeshis had accepted these interventions”and the cancellation of a national parliamentary election that was almost certain to have been rigged by the ruling party and boycotted by the opposition Grand Alliance”as the only viable option in averting a catastrophic course of political confrontation, violence, and bloodshed.

The year that followed has been an extraordinary one for Bangladesh. For the people of Bangladesh, the experience of the last year tells a mixed story of optimism and concern.

The Caretaker Government’s determined anti-corruption drive has brought the arrest, trial, and conviction of dozens of political leaders and businesspersons; the detention of two former prime ministers on corruption charges; and the strict enforcement of regulatory rules and procedures that for years were most commonly observed in the breach. This combination of action against corruption and governance reform initiatives was beyond the imagination of ordinary Bangladeshis who were previously resigned to the burden of corruption and impunity as realities of everyday life that they were powerless to avoid.

The anti-corruption drive has inadvertently contributed to a significant economic slowdown. Domestic investment has ground to a standstill as businesspersons seek to avoid any inference of ill-gotten wealth that might be raised by continuing to invest in this environment. Regional and international economic trends over which the Caretaker Government has had little control have contributed to 16 percent inflation, driving the price of rice and vegetables, petrol, and other essential commodities to record highs and plunging households that spend most of their income on necessities into severe economic hardship. The economic crisis was compounded by two major floods in the summer of 2007 and Cyclone Sidr in November 2007. While emergency warning systems alerted residents of the coastal region in time to take shelter, saving tens of thousands of lives, the warning could not avert the loss of livestock and destruction of infrastructure that have exacerbated the national economic burden.

A reconfigured Bangladesh Election Commission has made encouraging progress in its technical preparations for a national parliamentary election that it has promised to hold by the end of 2008. The Election Commission is presently cooperating with the military in preparing a new national electoral roll with digital photographs of registered voters. Lack of confidence in the integrity of the electoral roll was a major factor in the opposition boycott and public discontent prior to the cancelled election. Still ahead looms the critical process of dialogue with major political parties on a combination of electoral and party reform issues. The present ban on indoor political gatherings and the ongoing state of emergency limit the prospect of fruitful political engagement on these and other priority reform issues. This is a major point of grievance for political parties that can only genuinely proceed with reforms on the basis of thorough consultation with the Election Commission and Caretaker Government.

The 33-member Election Working Group coalition has monitored the perceptions of ordinary Bangladeshis through a series of monthly studies. Recent studies have asked people whether they feel personally better off today than they did on the eve of the state of emergency. Citizens say they feel they are better off in terms of social and political circumstances, with a particular emphasis on improved public security, but decidedly worse off economically. Matters of confidence cited by respondents include improved public security, corruption prevention initiatives, and the pace and progress of technical preparations for a national parliamentary election, including the registration of eligible voters for the new electoral roll. Bangladeshis report that the Caretaker Government’s emphasis on a corruption-free environment and greater discipline in public service delivery has brought improvements in education, health services, and public security. For the last several months, the overwhelming issue of concern has been the rise in prices of essential goods, which has affected almost all sectors of society. Economic concerns notwithstanding, overall public confidence in the Caretaker Government”as measured by a combination of reasonable, high, or extremely high confidence”increased to 88 percent in December 2007, up from 78 percent in April.

With several months still required to complete technical preparations for the parliamentary election, speculation abounds on the combination of circumstances that could potentially derail reform efforts, electoral preparations, and the return of power to an elected government. After several months of debate on the optimal timing of the election, public expectations are increasingly focused on the three-month period from October to December 2008, consistent with the pledge of the Election Commission and Caretaker Government. A rising percentage of citizens feel that the current ban on indoor politics should be lifted to set the stage for thorough political party engagement on key electoral and other reforms.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh.


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