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Pitfalls remain in path to stability

india Updated: Jan 15, 2007 15:02 IST
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Bangladesh stepped back from the edge of a political abyss last week thanks to a nudge from the military but feuding politicians could still create hurdles to a fair vote and next time, they might see more than just a nudge.

Diplomats and political analysts said the armed forces could step in if the efforts of a new interim administration fail to reform the South Asian nation's election process and reconcile its bitterly divided political parties.

"The military will be behind this new caretaker government and the political parties need to remember this for their own safety," said Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a retired army major-general and a defence analyst.

"If they return to their notorious ways, they (the military) could get involved directly, although that will not be a welcome solution."

Bangladesh has been ruled by army generals for 15 of its 35 years but the military has largely stayed out of politics since General Hossain Mohammad Ershad was ousted by a people's revolt in 1990.

The events of the past three months made it difficult for that distance to be maintained.

The country of 140 million people was plunged into turmoil after Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia stepped down in October at the end of her five-year term, handing the reins to an interim authority to hold polls.

A multi-party alliance headed by Khaleda's rival, former prime minister Sheikh Hasina, accused President Iajuddin Ahmed's interim administration of favouring Khaleda, boycotted the Jan. 22 election and demanded Iajuddin resign.

Army's reputation

As Iajuddin held fast on the poll, Hasina's Awami League-led alliance launched strikes and transport blockades in a bid to derail the plans, leaving 45 people dead and hundreds injured.

Throughout this period, the military held to a neutral position but at least some factions were perceived as backing Iajuddin after troops were called out to patrol the streets.

"The army's cherished reputation of being neutral and above partisan politics was endangered" by the perception that it supported Iajuddin's "questionable policies", columnist Mumtaz Iqbal wrote in the Daily Star newspaper on Sunday.

Members of the international community had watched developments with increasing alarm, concerned that an unstable or failed Bangladesh would strengthen Islamist extremist groups which have been trying to gain a bigger foothold in the Muslim nation.

They delivered the final blow by dropping hints that Bangladeshi troops could lose out on lucrative UN peacekeeping assignments if the country was allowed to slide into anarchy, diplomats and analysts said.

Bangladesh has nearly 10,000 troops on UN missions around the world, the second largest contribution after Pakistan, and earns an average of about $200 million every year, a small fortune in the impoverished country.

After the military put the pressure on, Iajuddin stepped down as interim chief, postponed elections and declared a national emergency to prevent violence, analysts said.

An inter-services spokesman said the military had no comment to offer. But privately, a top army source confirmed that the forces had "played our role for the country".

BNP boycott?

While the appointment of Fakhruddin Ahmed, a widely respected former central bank governor, as the new caretaker chief has brought relief, he faces an uphill task.

Ahmed needs to reach out to both Hasina, whose alliance has pledged to contest the new elections, and Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), sulking from what it sees as the Awami League's victory in getting the polls postponed.

A consensus would be needed over updating the voters' list, appointing impartial bureaucrats or former judges to the election commission, setting a date for elections and a peaceful campaign.

Much would depend on the stance the BNP-led four-party alliance decides to adopt, one diplomat said.

"They could throw a spanner in the works by deciding to boycott the elections since the same strategy worked for their rivals," he said.

"They also have sympathisers in the army who they can encourage to take power if the BNP feels it doesn't stand a chance in a free and fair election."

Some analysts, such as Atiur Rahman, a development economist with a local voluntary group, hoped the politicians had got the message.

"If they don't come together or decide not to participate in elections now, they will be opted out, they will simply be bypassed," he said.

"Parties will face dissent and they could get divided. So for their own sake they need to get their acts together."

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