Vol. 5 Num 939 Fri. January 19, 2007  

Straight Talk
Week one

The events leading up to the presidential speech of the night of January 11, when the president relinquished the post of chief adviser and declared a state of emergency, have been the subject of intense speculation since the early evening of the 11th when the news was first leaked into the public domain.

The hours leading up to the speech were filled with conjecture as to who was behind the move and what exactly was on the cards, and many were initially nervous that it was yet another 4-party stratagem, which seemed to be confirmed when it was reveled that nine of the advisers had resigned and that the only one left was Fazlul Huq, known to be the most partisan of the lot.

But with the president's speech it became clear that the BNP was no longer calling the shots as it had done for the past three months and that there was a new sheriff in town. The president capitulated entirely, admitting that the voter roll was flawed, that acceptable elections could not be held within the prescribed 90-day period, and that elections without the grand alliance of opposition parties would be meaningless.

The burning question is and remains: who was behind this move. Over the past week there has been this fiction played put by the cognoscenti that the president's declaration was volitional and that all constitutional measures had been followed.

BNP is keen to help maintain this fiction (for now) as it does not want to appear to have lost its grip on power. AL is keen as it does not want to too openly endorse a move that could be seen as extra-constitutional. The new caretaker government is happy to maintain the illusion that it is running things. And the army, of course, is happy to keep mum and maintain the pretence of not being involved. No one, however, is fooled.

The specific triggers for the move were illuminating.

One of the principal triggers was clearly the hardening position of the international community against the bogus elections. This position had been hardening since at least mid-December when the US ambassador stated that the caretaker government had not always worked neutrally.

This was followed up by categorical statements in January that a one-sided election would not be internationally acceptable and the united decision of all outside election monitoring teams to withdraw their monitors. Behind the scenes, hints were dropped to the army that if the BNP went ahead with its plans that this could imperil the army's UN peacekeeping missions.

Nor should one discount the looming concern of the grand alliance agitation, slated to begin on the 14th, that threatened to shut the country down and turn the streets into battle-fields. But the specific trigger for the action on January 11 was the behind the scenes maneuvers to replace the army chief of staff with a more compliant one who would do the 4-party's bidding.

So: what happens now? It has been confirmed that the first person offered the chief advisership was none other than Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, but that he declined the honour, perhaps wisely.

Subsequent to that, all the remaining advisers including the chief adviser have been chosen by the army high command and there is no question that the army top brass is calling the shots. The general perception is that the new caretaker administration is one that will not rock the boat and cause trouble for the power behind the throne.

The next question is whether the current combine will stay in power for only three months or so to administer elections or whether it will stay for longer. Officially, the international community has stated that it would like to see elections at the earliest, unofficially, I am not so sure. This could change, of course, but make no mistake about it: whether we see elections at the earliest or whether the time-period is extended in order to clean up the system depends to a large extent on what the international community deems acceptable.

The army obviously has allies and supporters from within the civilian world, but the early indications are that it is the army that is calling the shots and that the civilian influence on the current affairs of state is minimal. That said, in fairness, the army has not, as of yet, come down with a heavy hand. So the country waits and watches.

All indications are that the general public is not unhappy. The public is happy that the blood-shed and disruption that was on the cards from the 14th has been averted, and, most of all, it is happy that there will not be a rigged election that will install Tarique Rahman and his coterie in the seat of power.

Indeed, the principal concern on the streets is that the BNP may regroup and reassert itself. On the whole, this seems unlikely, but as long as the attorney general remains in place and the courts remain under BNP control, people will remain cautious and unconvinced.

The army has moved quickly to secure its position and neutralize the potential trouble-makers within its own ranks, but has been slower to act against senior civilian leadership, hence the apprehension that BNP may be able to regroup and the talk of the president stepping down to be replaced by the speaker of the house, thought to have more back-bone.

I don't see this working. All that such a move would accomplish would be to force the army out from behind the curtain, with the attendant problems that this would cause.

Right now the talk in the air is of reform. The Election Commission needs to be reconstituted, the voter roll fixed, and perhaps full-on reform of the election law. There is also talk of more thorough-going reform, such as separation of the judiciary from the executive, that is already underway, the idea being that the current system is so broken that it needs to be cleaned up from top to bottom.

So: where do we go from here? One scenario is that we head towards elections in three months, but this seems less likely with each passing day. AL would, of course, welcome early elections, but surely doesn't want to set itself up in opposition to the army at this point in time. BNP might also be tempted to go for early elections as they are concerned about the army coming after them. Neither, though, is going to take the issue to the streets since the public seems perfectly content with the status quo and neither want to either antagonize the army or to trigger more direct army rule.

But, if elections are delayed this leads to the question of whether we will see an extended caretaker administration or the army will step out from the shadows. The difficulty for the current administration is that a number of crises are brewing that they would have to tackle if they remained in office for any length of time. There is trouble afoot again in the power sector and the agriculture sector that will require a serious solution. There are a lot of difficult decisions that will need to be made.

The caretaker cabinet surely would not be happy with its role of figurehead if things start to deteriorate and the public grows restive. Similarly, the army will surely be loathe to take off its mask and step forward and take full responsibility and ownership for the state of the country.

Next, we have to see how sincere the army is about cleaning up the political landscape. Both the parties could benefit from cleaning up, and may survive and even thrive in the aftermath, but there is a chance that such an operation could fatally cripple them instead. This could create a vacuum that the army might be tempted to fill itself, though, thankfully there is no evidence of this right now.

More disturbing is the potential that such a move might create space for fundamentalists and extremists. Then again, it might merely ultimately permit the existing parties to strengthen themselves or clear the road for a new political alignment.

Right now, Bangladesh has been delivered from the fire of violence and fraudulent elections, so that is reason to celebrate. But whether we are on our way to something better or the frying pan isn't yet clear. Stay tuned.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.