Elections have always been a tumultuous affair in Bangladesh. December 29, 2008, was no different. On that sunny winter day, more than 70 million lined up to vote, and heartily replaced a two-year-long state of emergency with a parliamentary government.
These elections were special for the United States. Senator John McCain’s first post-November foreign trip included Bangladesh, where he stressed the importance of the elections. The US ambassador to Bangladesh asserted in a Congressional hearing that the American elections aside, “there’ll be no more transformational election in the world this year than the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 29 in Bangladesh.”
Indeed, the elections will be doubly successful if they help promote a long-overdue transformation in US policy toward Muslim countries.
In early 2007 Western diplomats, led by Americans and the British, cheered when the military snatched the country’s reins from bickering politicians. The diplomats’ worldview, imbued by the black-and-white discourse of the war on terror, could not make sense of the messy, fluid politics of Bangladesh. That politics was seen to promote extremism and threaten the West’s investments, and it needed to be countered by the military’s heavy hand.
The military top brass negotiated with the West a soft coup; a direct takeover, the local UN representative had noted, might jeopardize the military’s lucrative UN peacekeeping role. And so a facade was set up, a caretaker government led by an ex-World Banker to scrawl civilian signatures on the dotted line.
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank promptly opened up generous new lines of credit to help the new government’s “anti-corruption” drive. Elaborate security systems were set up to tap cellphones and the Internet. A political purging ensued with the usual markings: mass arrests, summary trials, torture and intimidation, lengthy prison sentences. Bangladesh’s dreaded intelligence agency became the foremost decision-maker.
This agency’s hand was heavy indeed, but clearly selective. While half a million were detained with little legal recourse, leaders of the main Islamist party, including war criminals from the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, were left outside the dragnet. While jailing many political leaders on corruption charges, the government began a spending spree with no transparency, including replacement of the entire national airlines fleet in a sudden deal worth $2.5 billion.
The international development banks got the government to close or sell public enterprises and reduce subsidies. As fear of persecution kept local merchants at bay, the paramilitary was given contracts to import and sell food. Yet inflation soared to its highest level in decades. Except for a fiercely suppressed campus uprising, discontent simmered underneath autocratic rule.
The underperformance of the government confounded the diplomats. Of special concern was its approach toward Islamist extremism. Early in its tenure the government demonstrated its anti-extremism credentials by summarily executing six “ringleaders” of a fringe group. But critics whispered that this was really a distraction, similar to the token gestures Pakistani authorities display when pressured by the United States.