International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Giving democracy a chance
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

DHAKA, Bangladesh: Bangladesh democracy was revived last December in what by most accounts was one of the fairest, best run elections seen anywhere in south Asia.

But after a stunning election victory, the new prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has a tough task to translate the evident popular desire for democracy into a government that is more effective, less corrupt and less prone to a "winner take all" attitude to politics than its elected predecessors.

Hasina, now into her third term, needs to make much progress in addressing the Bangladesh paradox.

On the one hand this country has one of the most dynamic civil society systems found anywhere in Asia, helping it surpass its richer neighbor India on many measures of social progress, and its economy has consistently confounded natural disasters by growing at 5 percent plus a year.

On the other hand, Bangladesh rates very low in standards of governance, has suffered endemic political violence, tops the Asian corruption league and, through a mix of graft, narrow nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence, has failed to take advantage of investment and trade opportunities.

The question - particularly for the governing Awami League but also for the main opponent, the Bangladesh National Party of Khaleda Zia - is: What did politicians learn from the experience of the caretaker government that ruled for two years from January 2007.

The military staged a silent coup and set about trying to reform the system, jailing both party leaders and leveling corruption charges against numerous politicians and officials. It also cracked down on crime and political violence, often using methods that bypassed the courts and led to human rights abuses.

As promised, it returned Bangladesh to democracy, but it did not succeed in removing the two party leaders whose rivalries had contributed much to political thuggery.

The electorate appears to have welcomed the caretaker government's cleansing efforts, but it wanted a return to democracy. Hasina in turn had the sense to agree to accept at least some of the caretaker government's reform legislation. Now she must deliver on expectations of improved standards.

So far the picture is mixed. The opposition is flirting with boycotts of Parliament and there have been instances of Awami members resorting again to violence.

Has Hasina - whose hold over the party of her father, the independence leader Sheikh Mujib, is strong - the determination to discipline her followers? Will her massive parliamentary majority make for effective government, or abuse of power?

As for Khaleda, head of the opposition Bangladesh National Party, she seems to have accepted that her defeat was at least partly caused by her record in government in 2001-06. But her commitment to a new path may be judged by whether her sons, seen by many as the poster boys of money politics, return to the forefront.

Hasina has made bold moves in excluding some leading party figures from the cabinet and installing competent ministers known to be less tainted by the past. But she has also appointed some advisers whose past probity is questioned.

For many people, however, punishing past sins is less important than making decisions and getting them implemented. Decisions are badly needed on investment and development issues if Bangladesh is to be able to keep its economy growing in the face of the global recession.

As for the military, it seems proud to of its role during the caretaker period and for its restoration of democracy. But that might not last.

Other possible dangers could be a rise of political Islam. This looks unlikely given the secular grounding of the main parties. The main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, is stuck at around 5 percent of the vote and is tarred by pro-Pakistan atrocities during the 1971 liberation war.

The homogeneity of Bangladesh, compared with other south Asian states, is a strength that allows it some scope for political instability without endangering the fabric of society.

But no one should doubt the difficulties of governing such a densely populated country bordered by India's most chaotic states, and facing the loss of scarce land to rising sea levels and upstream threats to its river systems.

Hasina's government has started with a huge fund of foreign goodwill and aid. Friends and neighbors, not to mention Bangladeshis, hope that she and her fellow politicians can make a better job than before. That could enable the country to move from low to middle income status within a decade while remaining an open and democratic society.