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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When democracy goes bad

LONDON — "We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive," Lt. Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, chief of the Bangladesh army, told a conference in Dhaka in April.

Typical talk from a soldier who has thrust the civilian political leaders of his country aside — but he does have a point, for the leaders in question are a pair of obsessives whose rivalry has poisoned Bangladesh's politics for decades.

Two political dynasties, alternating in power, have ruled Bangladesh ever since 1991. Now the rivalry is coming to an end — so, unfortunately, is democracy.

Bangladesh's democracy was never much to write home about. It won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but there were 20 years of tyranny and military rule before the first genuinely democratic government was elected in 1991. This change had domestic roots, of course, but it was also part of the wave of nonviolent democratic revolutions that began in the Philippines in 1986 and swept through Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.

Two steps forward, one step back. Thailand's democracy has now given way to military rule, and democracy in the Philippines isn't looking too healthy either. But nothing compares with the fall from grace of Bangladesh, which is usually ranked among the five most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. Credit for this disaster goes largely to the two women who have alternated in power for the past 16 years.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister from 1996 to 2001, is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the "Father of Bangladesh," a former student agitator who led the movement for separation from Pakistan and then became the first leader of independent Bangladesh. He was an instinctive autocrat without a single democratic bone in his body, and he died in 1975 in a bloody coup by junior army officers that also killed his wife and all of his children except Hasina and one other daughter who were abroad at the time. So Hasina has a chip on her shoulder.

Khaleda Zia, her bitterest rival, is the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the army officer who succeeded Mujib after a chaotic interval. He reversed most of Mujib's policies, including socialism and a strictly secular state — and then Zia also died in a hail of bullets in another military coup in 1981.

So Khaleda also has a chip on her shoulder. She became Zia's political heir, and prime minister from 1991-96 and again from 2001-06. Corruption flourished even more vigorously under her rule than under that of Sheikh Hasina.

Neither woman chose politics as a profession; both were driven into it by family tragedy. Neither woman is a monster: Each would probably offer up her own life if it would guarantee a safe and prosperous future for her 150 million fellow-countrymen and women. But each loathes the other, and would rather die than compromise or cooperate. Too many of their supporters have the same attitude.

The view of Lt. Gen. Ahmed, who has effectively been running the country since elections were canceled in January, is essentially that democracy is to blame. Sheikh Hasina, out of power, declared a boycott of this year's elections because she believed that the incumbent, Khaleda Zia, was going to rig them. In those circumstances, the election result would be meaningless, so the army intervened.

The general doesn't think democracy is right for Bangladesh. But if it isn't right for Bengalis, one of the most politicized, argumentative populations on the planet, then just whom is it right for? Democracy in Bangladesh has gone horribly wrong because of the bitter heritage from the war of independence — which, like most such struggles, was partly a civil war — but the solution is to fix it, not to cancel it.

At the moment, Gen. Ahmed is arresting hundreds of prominent political figures on corruption charges. Doubtless many of them are guilty, for that is how politics has been played in Bangladesh for decades. If they are found guilty by properly constituted courts and banned from further participation in politics, no great harm will be done.

If Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia themselves were among those excluded from politics on the grounds that they engaged in corrupt practices, that would not be a bad thing, either. But politics — DEMOCRATIC politics — needs to continue. It also needs to continue (or rather, resume) in Thailand, and Pakistan, and all the other places where the voters were "deceived by the politicians," or "made the wrong choices," or whatever other formula the saviors in uniform use when they grab power for themselves.

People get things wrong. Politics is a messy business. As Winston Churchill said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But he also said: "Democracy is the worst form of government — except all the others that have been tried from time to time."

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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