When I left Bangladesh, on the night of the January 8th the last images I saw of the country, through TVs at the airport, was of police beating back protesters and firing rubber bullets in to mass crowds. The quiet departure gate rang to the sounds of screaming women, broadcast across a near airport. So long, and thanks for the memories.
By the time I came back, on the 22nd, much had changed. To give a very brief run-down: to avert a potential bloodbath, on January 11th President Iajuddin Ahmed resigned from his controversial position as head of the Caretaker Government (CTG), and, as President, postponed the elections that were due to be held on the 22nd of January.
The final straw was the UN, EU, and USA all by this point stating that with a flawed voter list and the boycott of the main opposition, the election couldn’t be international acceptable – in effect also legitimising the Awami League’s allegations against the BNP.
Iajuddin declared a State of Emergency and handed power to Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank governer and World Bank official, and placed him in charge of an ‘interim government’, as now, constitutionally the 90-day tenure of the CTG has expired. We’re in uncharted territory.
Far from there being panic across the country, everything is eerily calm. The interim government has an urgent priority to clamp down on the most corrupt officials (hence the current mass flight to India of ‘ senior businessmen’), clean up the partisan civil service, fix the power crisis, keep food prices in check, and most urgently, create a new, legitimate voter list with a functioning id system, and then finally hold elections. Already the national security chief, the top civil-servant in the power ministry, and the attorney general have been ousted. The head of the Electoral Commission has also finally resigned, and efforts are being made to separate the judiciary from the executive.
But to set up a new Electoral Commission and create a new, error-free voter list is a mammoth task in a country with nearly 150 million people, and it needs to be done before the monsoon season starts in July. When the country starts to dry out again in September, it would be almost a year without a democratic government, and it is difficult to predict whether by that time another credible one could still emerge. Why is the interim government suddenly able to make such sweeping changes?
Why is the country so calm, with no protests or media furore? Because of the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007.