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LEADER ARTICLE: Democracy On The Run
17 Jan 2008, 0129 hrs IST,Maneeza Hossain

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WASHINGTON: Last week marked the first anniversary of the momentous events of January 11, 2007, when Bangladesh's democratically elected government was replaced by military rule.

For nearly a year, Bangladeshis have lived under a state of emergency: their constitutional rights have been suspended, civil liberties limited, and hundreds of thousands - ranging from former prime ministers to ad hoc peddlers - arrested under the banner of "fighting corruption".

One year after taking power, the military "caretaker" government's promises to implement a better, truer democracy have not been fulfilled.

To the contrary, the unelected government of Bangladesh can claim credit for two appalling developments: the politicisation of the army, which has blurred the lines between the army and civilian administration and has introduced into the army the same corruption rampant in Bangladeshi politics; and the creeping delegitimisation of democracy, which has occurred as various undemocratic actions - arrests of perceived enemies, the exclusion of duly elected leaders from political life, the ban on "indoor politics", which forbids private political discussions - are normalised under the army's rule.

Despair is setting in among many Bangladeshis. But in the West, and even among some in Bangladesh, there is denial rather than despair. Some reject the idea that a military coup took place.

Bangladesh's two previous military takeovers had a visible military face. The uniqueness of the new takeover is that the military hand is hidden in the velvet glove of a technocratic team, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, an internationally acclaimed economist.

But the refusal to recognise the coup as a coup goes deeper than that. Perhaps western democrats never believed Bangladesh was really capable of democracy, or perhaps they are willing to endorse a fictional democracy if
doing so is in line with perceived international interests.

Or perhaps new global risks have prompted the international community to accept an unelected government in Bangladesh: the belief that Islamism must be contained at all costs is taken to justify support for this new order, even if it means the indefinite suspension of democracy.

It is hard not be reminded of Pakistan: in Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, Islamism is a rising threat; corruption has eroded the political system; democracy appears a luxury too dear for the present; and the military, as the foremost professional institution, is the most trustworthy partner against the rise of Islamism. In both countries, moreover, reform will depend on the government bureaucracy and the expatriates.

One difference between the countries, however, is in the response of western diplomats.

When Pervez Musharraf declared the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, governments of democratic nations expressed their disapproval and dismay. However flawed, Bangladesh's democracy did not belong to the army for it to suspend. But a year has passed since the military assumed power, and the silence of much of the world amounts to complicity in the destruction of Bangladesh's democratic potential.

While the West remains silent, Bangladesh sinks deeper into crisis. The country's currency has lost 10 per cent of its value, leading businessmen are kept behind bars, and the price of commodities such as edible oil and rice are being forcibly kept down by the army's experiment in state-controlled economics. Husain Haqqani has referred to the "Pakistanisation" of Bangladesh.

A decade from now, we may see in Bangladesh a politicised military that holds the reins of power, controls the economy, and has the final say in social, economic and political affairs; a shrunken and weakened semi-democratic political class exhausted by sending its leaders into exile, putting them on trial, and engineering divisions amongst them; and a growing grass-roots movement that appeals to urban as well as rural populations, that provides services parallel to the government's, and that - under the banner of an ever-radicalising Islamism - offers an outlet for venting frustration.

Unfortunately, realpolitik does not offer the military caretaker government an incentive for change. With explosive regional and international situations, world power centres seem to be inclined to continue their tacit support for the actions of the Bangladeshi caretaker government.

This support is nonetheless contingent on a timetable to elections. For its part, the caretaker government is adamant at excluding both former prime ministers from any future political role. What remains to be seen is whether the Bangladeshi electorate is willing to go along with this exclusionary stand.

The current arrangement has delegitimised democracy in practice as well as in culture, and in doing so has
helped to consolidate and strengthen Islamist movements. A sensible approach for the current government of Bangladesh would be to adhere to its formal task of preparing for elections.

It should also immediately stop attempting to force reforms within political parties; this is a task that should be left to the electorate. Democrats worldwide, notably in India, Europe and the US, should demand that the state of emergency be lifted at once in preparation for the restoration of democracy.

Yes, the Bangladeshi experimentation with democracy was riddled with problems. But that is the nature of democracy. Problems have to be resolved within the context of democracy, not within that of military rule.

(The writer is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.)