DHAKA, BANGLADESH — For a nation steeped in political crisis, life seems remarkably calm out on the sun-dappled streets.
Women haggle in the market. Shopkeepers trade the daily dish while smoking cigarettes and spitting jets of betel juice. Traffic moves at a crawl, when it moves at all, which is business as usual on the clogged roads of this densely packed capital.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Bangladesh arrests: An article in Tuesday's Section A on the political crisis in Bangladesh referred to senior politicians and former government ministers being arrested Sunday. The arrests were made Feb. 4.
But the apparent normality masks a sobering reality: namely, that democracy in Bangladesh lies battered and broken -- and the military has stepped in to fix it.
Since Jan. 11, this country of 147 million people has been under an official state of emergency. Controversial elections scheduled for last month have been suspended indefinitely. A caretaker government backed by the army now rules the land, dedicated, or so its civilian leaders say, to cleaning up Bangladesh's corrupt, thuggish political system so a free and fair poll can take place. Mass arrests have landed thousands of Bangladeshis in jail.
It has all the signs of a coup d'etat. Yet that is a term no one here is willing to use out loud, because the newly installed government, at least for the moment, enjoys broad support at home and abroad.
The widespread approval stems from the grim calculation that the alternative would have been far worse: a rigged election followed by a bloodbath.
In the weeks before the planned poll, political agitation by the two main parties triggered paralyzing strikes and violence in which at least 45 people were killed. Analysts warned that Bangladesh, home to one of the world's largest Muslim populations, risked collapse, with Islamic radicals ready to step in.
Now, the country is savoring a reprieve from the chaos.
"There seems to be a sense of relief," said Owen Lippert, director of the Dhaka office of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. "A state [of affairs] that was generating strikes ... and some deaths -- people certainly don't miss that."
The welcome return to stability, however, has somewhat obscured the basic question of when, or whether, democratic rule will be restored in a nation that has experienced more than its share of military meddling -- 21 coups or attempted coups in its 36 years of existence.
Headed by a widely respected former central bank governor, Fakhruddin Ahmed, the new interim government has declined to fix a date for the postponed election. Instead, it has unveiled an ambitious package of political and other reforms that call into question just how long it intends to stay in power.
To pave the way for a new poll, Ahmed promised to introduce voter identification cards, depoliticize the election commission and purge voter rolls, which international election observers say are swollen with 12 million duplicate names. These measures have won domestic and international praise.
But Ahmed also vowed to root out corruption, alleviate Bangladesh's chronic electricity woes and keep a lid on rising prices -- problems that will require months, if not years, to solve.
The incumbent Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the opposition Awami League, bitter rivals that rarely agree, have called for an election within three to four months. Suggestions that the poll may be put off until the end of 2007, or even into 2008, have rung alarm bells.
So have the mass arrests. Bangladesh's fearsome Rapid Action Battalion, a joint force of police and soldiers, has rounded up an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, a campaign that has netted, not without some public support, many political operatives and local bosses from the two main parties.
Early Sunday, Bangladeshi security forces arrested more than a dozen senior politicians and former government ministers, wire reports said.
Reports of at least 19 deaths in custody have sparked protests from local and international human rights groups.
"Our people want this caretaker government to hold an election," said Sheik Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League and prime minister from 1996 to 2001. "An unelected government cannot run for long."
Perhaps not, but it is also doubtful that ordinary Bangladeshis are in any hurry for a return to politics as usual.
Many are angry about the corruption and naked power plays entrenched in Bangladeshi politics, and about the lack of improvement in their lives. The economy has grown at a moderate pace in recent years, much of it from clothing factories that supply companies such as Gap Inc., but half the population still languishes below the poverty line.
Even the Nobel Prize awarded to microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, which prompted a huge national celebration here in his homeland, served to highlight the failure of the state in providing economic opportunities for its people.
In October, a survey in the Daily Star newspaper found that a majority of voters had grown disenchanted as a result of what the paper described as "inter-party bickering, unbridled corruption, total lack of governance and signs of dynastic politics."