Yunus enters politics, and is wrong

On Sunday Professor Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and consequently seen by the people here as both their pride and saviour, finally decided to get his hands dirty and enter politics.


Over the last four months it has struck me as strange that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient should travel the world receiving accolades and free dinners whilst back home his country falls to pieces, but I suppose he’s decided that now is the time to actually do some peace-keeping.


He’s chosen his moment well, because currently, with no legal government, all political protests banned, some fundamental human rights suspended, he can enter the political vacuum and fill it with his beaming smile, use his moral authority to force the interim military-backed administration to hold elections at some point this year (which otherwise would not be likely), and win with a landslide. Easy.


Of course, I only want Bangladesh to develop as a country, with a legitimate democratic government that rules in the best interests of the people with their consent. This is what Yunus might be able to achieve. But he would achieve it in a most unusual fashion, and is starting from the wrong position.

On Sunday Yunus published an open letter to the ‘people of Bangladesh’ announcing that he was ready to enter politics, but with the caveat that only if the people backed him. Yunus wrote: “If the people and civil society want, I shall enter politics and float a party. I am mentally ready to do it,” adding “People will determine the propitious moment of my entering politics. If they do not want my entering politics I am ready to accept that situation also. I always keep myself ready to respond to the challenge of doing a new thing.”

This is the first time that I have been aware of someone apparently only willing to compete and enter elective politics, go to all the trouble and expense of creating a party, if the people have already stated that they will support him. Yunus has invited Bangladesh to contact him via letter, email, or sms and outline how his party should function, what they should do, and whether they the people will support him. And then, presumably Yunus will go ahead, win power, and have absolute authority to exercise it, with perhaps only a nominal, despised political opposition representing the ‘dark old days’.

This is what politics in Bangladesh has descended to. Historically, the way parliamentary democracy operates is that a group of people have particular beliefs, form a party, and then the onus is on them to win support from their fellow people; to prove to the general public that they are such upstanding citizens that they should win their represent the public in a legislative chamber. It’s a social contract.

But politics and democracy have become dirty words in Bangladesh, because they now symbolize 15 years of corruption, mis-management, hartals and violence which has hugely damaged Bangladesh internally, and somewhat disgraced it internationally.

The Awami League have been hoist by their own petard; by mounting constant protests and fighting tooth and nail to postpone the 2007 elections in the name of ‘democracy’, they succeeded only to discover that the demos themselves aren’t that keen on democracy anymore.

So now, the two main parties and their leaders have successfully demonstrated to their fellow people that they are such greedy, incompetent and self-obsessed citizens, that the people and army have decided that they never want them to represent Bangladeshis again. It’s a social coup, of sorts.

And enter Professor Yunus, taking advantage of the vacuum to assume control. Even if his party didn’t win an absolute majority, it would still win enough seats to play a crucial coalition role, and the necessary check on any abuse of privilege and power. Obviously Professor Yunus is a great man, and his wisdom, dedication and leadership is what Bangladesh sorely needs. But the fact that he can step in to save his country this way is tragic. Why did he not cancel his dinner dates and step in three months ago? Was ‘politics’ then so dirty and mired in corruption and self-interest for him to risk staining his virtuous reputation?

The BNP brazenly tried to rig the election in their favour, but now all the parties through their irresponsibility have rigged the next election, whenever that may be, in Yunus’ favour.  He will be able to claim a solid elective mandate from the people and international support to clean up Bangladesh, but the true political opportunity, the democratic legitimacy will still not have been won fair and square.

Yunus writes in his letter that it “is now clear to all that it is not possible to reach the goal maintaining the existing political culture; it is only possible by bringing a comprehensive change to the culture”. To begin this change through being effectively installed by the military is not the way to do this.

For politics to be a topic of polite conversation again, for democracy to be a word one says rather than spits, then the current quasi-military administration must begin to set the standards that they want a civilian, democratic government to maintain. This means full transparency, rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights and most importantly reform of political institutions, but through a political manner rather than threat of prison. You can’t reform a legal system through illegal means.

The day Yunus published his ‘please support me’ letter, the human rights organization Odikhar published a report stating that 29 people were killed by law-enforcing agencies and 52,027 were arrested in the first month of emergency.  

According to the report, of the 29 people killed:

·        Eleven were killed in connection with the Rapid Action Battalion, nine with the police, six with the army and three with the joint forces.

·        Ten were killed in the ‘crossfire’ of the associates of the crime suspects and the Rapid Action Battalion and four in the ‘crossfire’ of the police.

·        Three were tortured to death in police custody. One, arrested by the battalion, later died in hospital, and two died in hospital after being arrested by the police.

·        Four were tortured to death in army custody, one died when he tried to get away from an army van, one jumped off a six-storey building and died while he was in the custody of the joint forces, two, arrested by the forces, later died in police custody and one died in hospital after being arrested by the army.

How is this a better time for Yunus to decide to enter Bangladeshi politics than before? Better for Yunus, but not for Bangladesh. Yunus succeeded in civil society, and it is Bangladesh’s civil society and corporate leaders that must ensure that institutions are reformed so that politics can function as normal, with good leaders enjoying the true support of the people that they won in a legitimate contest, rather than a few wise men smiling their way through power in the light of virtue, with all their foes beaten up, locked up, or frightened away in the shadows of ‘politics’.

The Awami League and BNP are begging for elections to be held as soon as possible, and whilst it is right that the interim administration first reforms the electoral commission, expels partisan civil officials, creates an independent judiciary and a empowered Anti-Corruption Commission, it must then arrange for polls to be held again – because otherwise the excuse that ‘the country is not ready for politics’ will be all too convenient.

Yunus’s condition: ‘support me first or I’m not going to try’ is not the spirit of democracy, it is not how true political leaders emerge. It is time for him, and all Bangladeshis to show courage and insist that politics is brought back in to Bangladeshi public life – it might be dirty at times, but it is fundamentally real, it can only be what the country lets it. And so whilst the worst sores should be removed now, politics should be imminently revived, and then cleaned up from within, not blasted at from the outside.


6 Responses to “Yunus enters politics, and is wrong”

  1. 1 orangensaftnotiz February 18, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    i think you are wrong. if you look at yunus vita you will see, that most of his lifetime he was engaged in improving bangladeshs situation. well he also earned money, but who cares? in 2006 he delivered a speech in dhaka talking about the future of bangladesh and pointed out, that it is only possible to develop bangladesh, if current politics change and if everybody is fighting against corruption. second should be clear to everybody, but let me point out, why i think yunus is the only one, who can change political climate and culture in bangladesh.

    after receiving the noble prize yunus is honoured by mostly everyone in bangladesh – bnp and awami league supporters. he symbols the dream of golden bengal. he is the only one who can build a bright between the two main political groups, while being in favour to everyone. look: bangladeschi political culture means, that politicians decide, making laws and earning money. people on a street are not asked. just one time in three years there is an election. than the main political parties start polarizing the mass and fighting on the streets. what my impression is, that most of the people being on the street are just there because somebody asked them to make trouble. mostly students do so, because higher years students from other classes forced them or give some money. i talked to some students in dhaka and they confirmed that a lot of people in this ‘rallies’ do not support the party OR they support the party, because they get money from them. directly or indirectly. politics in bangladesh is not about a topic, is just about who pays most, who has the best tactic.

    but people are interested. if you talk to people in a village you will find out, that most of them want to improve their situation, that they want participate in local politics. but they do not know how or can not! only local elites are elected in the local “parliaments” (Union Parishad) because they know how to join and make politics. but mostly they do not know about the situation of ordinary people or just collecting their food-cards (VDGs) and selling them. what bangladesh need is grassroots democracy and people who are honest. most of the politicians here aren’t honest, so bangladesh needs new politicians. that’s why i really like yunus and his initiative. he tries to communicate with the people and asked them to build up a new bangladesh with him together – making new politics with new politicans. he has a dream and telling this dream everyone. may he does it in a different way we expect from politicians, but why not?


    by the way: my name is moritz, i’m 19 years old and working in the north. my ngos name is udayan swabolombi sangstha. ebong amar desh germany. 🙂

  2. 2 sowula February 19, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for the comment Moritz.
    Firstly, I am not for a second saying that Yunus entering politics would not be good for Politics, or Bangladesh. A man of his knowledge, skill and integrity is certainly what Bangladesh needs.

    But I am arguing that it is the institutions of the state that have allowed Bangladeshi politics to fall victim to the worst elements of human nature, and that is what needs to be repaired and restored. And this has to be done through proper, legal means.

    Yunus taking advantage (and I’m not suggesting he had planned for this) of the vacuum in law, power and dignity that Bangladesh suffers currently suffers from, to suddenly inject his party in to the political arena – I don’t think this is the correct process with which to restore democracy.

    He is trading on his fine reputation as an academic and an economist, but of his recent political statements, we know that he awarded President Iajuddin’s performance ‘A+’, he advocated giving the corrupt BNP and AL another year in power in a coalition government that could only have prolonged the impasse, and he also supported holding the election on the 22nd to ‘save’ the Constitution, which was ludicrous.

    I would rather he float a party, then seek people’s support, particularly the grass roots. But just adding himself and his friends in to the already bloated Bangladeshi sphere of political elite; I don’t see how that changes the culture, or necessarily empowers the villagers. This is not democracy in action.

  3. 3 TALM February 23, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    If Professor Yunus wanted to solve the credit problem for the poor through the existing system banking system in Bangladesh thirty years ago then there would be no such thing as Grameen Bank and the concept of Micro Credit would have stayed largely unknown. He did some thing out of the ordinary and followed his passion. In his book the “The Eighth Habit — From Effectiveness to Greatness” Franklin Covey uses Prof. Yunus to describe the eighth habit which is to “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.” I disagree that Prof. Yunus has to follow the normal path to enter politics. I believe he is entering politics because he genuinely loves Bangladesh and its people. I am extremely happy about the present situation in Bangladesh — this is the only way we can ever get rid of corrupt, destructive and unpatriotic politicians form Bangladesh’s politics. What we had before in the name of democracy was a farce! Bangladesh’s parliament was never functional — who ever was in the opposition, boycotted it and kept people of the entire country, their virtual prisoners through hartals and strikes.

    So if Prof. Yunus’s entrance in the politics is novel, then let it be. It is exactly what the country needs and even if he fails he will be forever a hero in my eyes for at least trying.

    Love your blog by the way!

  4. 4 Asif Qader February 24, 2007 at 12:06 am

    Prof. Yunus already surrouded by some known corrupt people. that’s alarming. If wants to be sucssful he needs to be careful leting people in.

  5. 5 sowula February 24, 2007 at 11:07 am

    TALM, thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree with you that Yunus should enter Politics, and I have been horrified and disgusted by some commentators saying that ‘politics’ is ‘too dirty and corrupt’ for someone like Yunus to get involved. If that is anyone’s attitude, then we might as well all give up now.

    But one of the great things about democracy, and what makes it unique, is that it has the capacity to repair and reform itself. All political systems invite corruption, mismanagement and abuse to varying degrees.

    So to restore Democracy, I am arguing that he needs to do it the right way, through contesting elections, and the first thing he should be doing is STRONGLY advocating the delivery of free and fair elections as soon as possible.
    I still have not heard of any policy suggestion from Yunus, nothing was mentioned in his second letter
    except for utopian idealism.

    What he’s got to do is show his true respect for democracy by stating practical policies, explaining his reasons, and contesting an election against that. He claims the support of the nation but until he has a single legal vote for his party, letters and emails are immaterial.

    Of course this can not happen within a month, but until he starts making demands of the interim military-beaurocrat administration for the freedom of his country to be restored, I am not impressed.

  6. 6 Russell Chowdhury March 22, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    it will be great, if Dr. Yunus could answer following questions,
    1. To democratically govern a country, party needs to practice democracy within the party. If leadership goes unchallenged, there is a possibility of widespread corruption. In that case, if Dr. Yunus’s leadership is challenged by his own party member (within the party), is he ready to step aside, even go to backbench and still be in the party and work for the party? Or, he will leave the party to form another one?

    2. What process he will follow to privatise public assets? He will hand over the publicly operated services directly to foreign companies? Or progress in stages by encouraging and developing local capabilities in stages through outsourcing and then after ensuring that services can be delivered through local businesses and then, he will move into the final stage of privatisation? This question is very important, because one will help sucking the money out of the economy and the other will help moving the country forward, because globalisation is good, if the country has the capabilities and vice versa.

    3. What are the measures Dr. Yunus will take to ensure political fairness and establishment of good political system? How he will ensure that his generation, if comes to power will not do the same thing as Tarique. To establish fairer and accountable political environment, will he bring the government term down to 3 years and restrict anyone to be in prime minister position for not more than 2 terms? Otherwise, his generations will start ruining the system like others (such as Ghandi family).

    4. Will he establish political feedback process, rather than simply claiming like, ‘Jono gon chai’, which is similar to Mr. Jalil of AL and Mr. Mannan of BNP. Without any quantitative data, everyone (including Dr. Yunus) claims that they have peoples’ support and mandate, which needs proves and evidences.

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