DHAKA, BANGLADESH — Weeks of public outrage that a military-backed interim government was failing to stop corruption has yielded unexpected dividends.
Since Sunday night the government has arrested 20 influential politicians, including six former ministers, and is likely to try them on charges of corruption within the next two months.
The arrests have stunned leaders of the country's two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), who have both headed governments accused of massive corruption since democracy was restored to Bangladesh in 1991. Many of the senior leaders of both parties have gone into hiding for fear of arrest.
But with the military as stewards of the sudden wave of reform, many observers say that the new drive to prosecute corruption may also represent a permanent departure from Bangladesh's recent democratic past. Despite approval for the crackdown, Bangladeshis have speculated that the absence of a new date for elections or a clear policy agenda may reveal the military's ambitions to hold onto power by claiming their singular ability to tackle entrenched corruption.
"It will be very unfortunate if our worst fears come true and this government holds on to power over a long period of time, as their primary mandate was to hold elections as soon as possible," says Rashed Khan Menon, head of the Workers' Party of Bangladesh.
The Awami League and the BNP top brass share a bitter and violent mutual hatred for each other and supporters often fight pitched battles on Dhaka's streets, but there has always been an unspoken rule that neither party would investigate the other's corruption while in power.
If that traditional armor of immunity is indeed crumbling, few former ministers and members of parliament (MP) are likely to be spared. A corruption perception index by the Berlin-based Transparency International ranked impoverished Bangladesh as the most corrupt in the world for five of the six years since 2000.
"Much of that corruption can be attributed to the senior politicians who have ruled the country since 1991," says Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University.
The present government – which is headed by former bureaucrats and generals – seized power on Jan. 11, after its earlier avatar, which was tasked with holding national elections on Jan. 22, failed to tackle pre-electoral violence between the League and the BNP in which over 40 people were killed.
Bangladesh is now under quasi-military rule, and the state of emergency declared in January has yet to be lifted. Analysts say the "emergency rule" is likely to continue for another year, while the Army-backed regime carries out "a massive cleansing" in politics, bureaucracy, and big business.
According to Dr. Rahman, businessmen have bribed politicians in the League and the BNP through large donations to the parties, seen as investments, which they recoup through crony deals during their stints in power.
"How else can you explain why 52 percent of the members in the present-day Bangladesh parliament are principally businessmen?" he asks. "Politics is possibly the most profitable sector for investment as returns are quick and exponentially higher than the investment."
The media have, for the most part, greeted the spate of high-profile political arrests with a wave of approval, but questions remain over how radically the interim government will be able to change Bangladesh's political norms.
"Although we laud the government's crackdown against corruption, bitter experiences from our nation's history tell us that more often than not, these arrests turn out to be eyewash," says Mr. Menon. The government, he says, should have overhauled the country's heavily politicized anti-corruption commission first, and then charged that independent commission with filing charges against corrupt politicians.
A minority of leftist politicians like Menon have long advocated laws that would require political parties to not only hold elections for party leadership but also require their leaders to declare their wealth, allowing annual audits of party coffers to reveal the sources of their funds.
Neither the Awami League nor the BNP have held credible elections to their party positions in the past 15 years.
Nevertheless, many high-profile civil-society leaders see reason to be upbeat about the interim government's reform agenda.
"The government has taken important steps to free the judiciary from control of the executive branch and is also looking to overhaul the entire electoral process, both of which are long-standing public demands," says Mustafizur Rahman, director of Dhaka-based think tank The Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Mr. Rahman also sees the non-elected interim government's actions as a response to a national need, even though he agrees that there is confusion over its constitutional legality.
"The existing political landscape and polarizations need to be broken for a new democratic paradigm to emerge in our country," he says. "And this does not happen organically, it must be induced by pressuring the two parties until they break and realign, and new forces enter the fray."