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In Bangladesh: Hoping for Change

November 12, 2008

By Kim McQuay

Last Wednesday morning, November 5th, I was leaving a gathering in Dhaka that featured big-screen television coverage of the U.S. election, when a cycle rickshaw driver drew up alongside me. I assumed that he had slowed to offer me a ride, but in turning toward him, I found his face lit with excitement. With a wide grin he declared, “Brother, your American election is very good.  Barack Obama President.  I am too much happy.”

This captured the near-universal reaction of the people of Bangladesh, who observed the U.S. electoral process and outcome with keen interest. Local Bangladeshi media coverage of the U.S. elections began in 1992, when Bangladeshi television broadcast evening excerpts of CNN reporting. At the time, Bangladeshis were especially struck by the presidential candidate debates between President George H.W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton. The concept and images of rival American candidates thoughtfully debating issues of substance and then shaking hands at the close of the debate offered an enticing glimpse of a kind of political culture unknown to Bangladesh”at a time when partisan tensions were starting the bitter course that would ultimately extend to every corner of society, dividing the nation along sharp political lines.

Sixteen years later, Bangladeshis followed a U.S. election campaign of profound domestic and global significance through a variety of local and international media sources. Bangladeshi observers understood that both Senators Obama and McCain called for change in their own terms”unequivocally distancing themselves from trends that had changed American politics, and from consequences that had undermined America’s image in the world. Bangladeshis were clearly inspired by Senator Obama’s path to party candidacy and electoral triumph, and touched by his victory speech in Chicago. Perhaps more importantly, they were moved by John McCain’s gracious acceptance of electoral defeat and pledge to work with an Obama Administration.  In Bangladesh, since the restoration of democracy in 1991, no losing party has accepted defeat and assumed a good faith opposition role in Parliament with the same resolve”nor has a winning party pursued anything short of a winner-take-all course.

How will the U.S. election experience factor as Bangladeshis reflect on an extraordinary last two years?

The parliamentary election in Bangladesh was originally scheduled for January 2007. In the weeks leading up to the election, violent political confrontations shook the streets of Dhaka and other major centers. Bangladeshis lost confidence as the traditionally non-partisan caretaker government mechanism became blatantly political. Ultimately, a state of emergency was declared, the election was canceled, and a military-backed caretaker government assumed power on January 11, 2007. In the weeks that followed, the Caretaker Government embarked on an unprecedented course of governance reform. Reform measures included appointing a new Bangladesh Election Commission; empowering the Anti-Corruption Commission and other existing public agencies; creating new government agencies and economic development forums to foster public-private dialogue and cooperation; and  launching an anti-corruption drive through which hundreds of political and business leaders across the country were arrested, tried, and convicted on charges of corruption.

While Bangladeshis had long been resigned to corruption as an everyday reality, investigations revealed a scale of corruption among senior officials of all political parties that exceeded imagination. The two major political party leaders and former prime ministers were arrested and detained. The public was astounded to find that political actors at all levels that had long behaved with contempt for the law and democratic values could be brought to justice for corruption. Citizens likewise applauded government measures to improve public security, strengthen education, public health, and other public services, and implement a precise electoral roadmap.

Where has this roadmap led to? Two years later, final preparations are underway for parliamentary elections on December 18 and upazila (mid-level local government) elections on December 28. Having been relegated to the margins of public affairs for nearly two years, political actors appear to have secured and reasserted much of their past influence. Dozens of senior political leaders have been released on bail, while the Caretaker Government has hinted in response to calls from domestic and international quarters that the state of emergency may be relaxed or lifted in advance of the elections. Political leaders are negotiating with the Caretaker Government and Election Commission to ensure that the election schedule is maintained. One major political party has signaled its readiness to contest the election, while another insists that certain demands be met before it formally commits. Recent survey research by the Election Working Group (EWG)”a 32-member national civil society coalition engaged in voter and civic education and election observation”and The Asia Foundation indicates that Bangladeshis welcome the election preparations. Public confidence is buoyed by the quality of the new voters’ list with photographs and the sound administration of city corporation elections in August, which were conducted as a first test of the new legal framework and administrative mechanisms.

Bangladeshis hold elections and democratic values sacred.  While the average Bangladeshi has a clear understanding of politics and governance, historically his or her sense of individual or collective political efficacy has been modest at best. Ordinary citizens loathe the face and legacy of weak governance as it affects their quality of life and efforts to rise from poverty, but have traditionally felt powerless to register their voice, much less effect change. Survey findings affirm that the unprecedented reform initiatives of the last two years have offered enticing glimpses of potential change to which Bangladeshis have responded with a combination of keen optimism and tempered concern that political leaders and parties will not willingly reform themselves without sustained pressure from civil society, the business community, the media, and other interlocutors.

Political party leaders have yet to acknowledge responsibility for the political crisis that culminated in the cancelled election and state of emergency in 2007.  Thus far there is little hint that they have substantive policy options in mind as an alternative to the partisan tensions and historical grievances that have passed for substance in previous election campaigns. Time remains for political parties to engage in the thoughtful policy dialogue and informed debate on economic and other priority issues urged by EWG and other civil society groups, national opinion leaders, the media, and the international community.

While expectations have been adjusted significantly since January 2007, hope persists among my Bangladeshi friends and colleagues that the call for reform has prompted political leaders to reflect on the prospect of abandoning past practices. One hopes that ordinary Bangladeshis have likewise been inspired to demand more of candidates and elected leaders and to carefully scrutinize the post-election performance of national and local government leaders in following through with their campaign pledges.

Bangladeshis hail the Obama victory as a unique moment in American political history”a sea change in leadership, vision, and social equality that reaches back decades in fulfilling hopes and aspirations that seemed faintly possible to earlier generations. The people of Bangladesh wish for similar milestone elections next month. They are united in their hope for long-term changes in political culture, accountability, and the substance of parliamentary governance and lawmaking that will accelerate national economic growth and development and guide the nation in achieving its full potential.

Kim McQuay, a long-time resident of Dhaka, is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected].


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