THE swearing-in this week of Sheikh Hasina Wajed as Bangladesh’s prime minister has brought national celebration. There is much to cheer: the return of democratic rule after two years of army-installed technocracy; a successful election, largely free of the violence, intimidation and massive vote-buying that marked its predecessors; the toppling of the unpopular regime of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which preceded the army’s interregnum; and the rout of Mrs Zia’s Islamist allies, and hence, it is hoped, of the political wings of Islamist extremism.
Even the army may be making the best of it. A victory for Mrs Zia might have been more unwelcome to them. The BNP suffered badly under the caretaker government’s anti-corruption drive. Mrs Zia’s own son had left prison a literally broken man—his back badly damaged by whatever happened to him in custody. So she might have been more likely to press for vengeance.
AFPBut the army must also question whether its intervention in politics achieved its aims. Its counterparts in the Thai army might sympathise: both sets of generals intervened—in September 2006 in Thailand and January 2007 in Bangladesh—to get rid of parties they regarded as irredeemably corrupt.
In Thailand, that party was the one led by Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister. It was banned. But its members regrouped under another name and won the election in December 2007. That party, too, has since fallen foul of the law, but its latest incarnation would still have a parliamentary majority were it not for defections to a party the army finds less objectionable.
In Bangladesh, both the BNP and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League were seen as beyond the pale—corrupt, nepotistic and run by two women whose mutual antipathy poisoned political life. The caretaker government did all it could to weaken the parties, locking up the two leaders and some of their senior associates and trying to send Sheikh Hasina and Mrs Zia into exile.
It also facilitated the launch of a new and short-lived party led by Muhammad Yunus, a microfinancier who won the Nobel peace price, and whose Grameen Bank has a nationwide network. It tried to persuade Fazli Abed, of the other big microcredit network, BRAC, to form his own party.
But, like the Thai generals, Bangladesh’s army-backed technocrats found that national political parties that fight and win elections tend to put down deep roots. They have branches throughout the country, youth groups, sympathetic officials and the almost tribal loyalty of some of their voters. Such parties cannot simply be willed away.
Similarly, in Pakistan, after more than eight years of rule by Pervez Musharraf, during which the two big mainstream parties were systematically undermined, they still thrashed his “king’s party” in an election last February.
At least in Bangladesh the army seems to have accepted it has to learn to live with the existing political set-up. And although the BNP has refused to acknowledge that it lost fair and square, its defeat was so massive that protests are unlikely to prove too disruptive in the short term.
The new government will have a short honeymoon, trying to raise a poor country’s living standards during a global slump. It will not be long before the celebrations turn to disillusionment.
Yet compared with the bloody mess into which the army stepped two years ago, Bangladeshi politics seems a picture of calm and hope. Its prospects look brighter than either Pakistan’s or, oddly, Thailand’s.
Not so long ago Thailand seemed one of the most stable South-East Asian countries: a magnet for foreign investors and tourists. Yet the unruly street protests and airport blockade that led to the downfall of the most recent pro-Thaksin government in December badly dented the country’s international image. More fundamentally, the continued refusal of the army and sections of the elite to cohabit with the government chosen by the electorate suggests that political instability is only just beginning.