Q&A: Bangladesh's Leader Fakhruddin Ahmed

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Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty

Fakhruddin Ahmed of Bangladesh

The announcement of a general election in Bangladesh often signals the start of a season of political violence between the country's two main parties. So there was trepidation in Dhaka last week when Fakhruddin Ahmed, who heads a "caretaker" government, announced that elections would be held on Dec 18.

The caretaker government was installed by the military in January, 2007, after the last round of pre-election violence between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina's Awami League. That election was suspended, and Ahmed, a former central banker with a reputation for clean hands, was appointed to run the country with wide-ranging emergency powers. Despite his ambiguous title of "chief adviser" to the government, Ahmed has effectively been Prime Minister.

Shortly after taking his new job, he told TIME that his priorities were to clean up the notoriously venal political culture, and to implement reforms that would ensure fair elections. His administration brought criminal and corruption charges against scores of prominent politicians, and arrested both Zia and Hasin

It also launched an ambitious voter-registration program.

Throughout this process, Ahmed has promised that his government would hold elections in December. But many Bangladeshis worry that in his haste to stage the poll, he has undermined the anti-corruption drive: Zia and Hasina have been released on bail, to ensure that their parties participate in the polls. The fear, now, is that whoever wins the election will simply roll back Ahmed's reforms, returning Bangladesh to politics as usual.

In New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Ahmed spoke with World Editor Bobby Ghosh. Excerpts:

TIME: Why elections now?

Ahmed: Soon after I took over as chief adviser, I announced that we would hand over to the next elected government as soon as the Election Commission had completed a proper voter-registration process. We've also done some institutional reforms — in the Election Commission, the Anticorruption Commission and other areas — to establish good governance. We've set up a national human rights commission, passed the Right to Information Act, strengthened local governments.

Are you now confident that these reforms are irreversible?

I feel quite confident, because these reforms were demanded by the civil society, and by the political parties. I do hope that the next government and the governments thereafter will strengthen these reforms.

And yet you're now going into an election with exactly same people standing for office, the same parties that have been tainted by charges of corruption and whose governance has been discredited.

Right from Day 1, we have been saying that the anticorruption cases will be tried under normal laws of the land and everyone will be allowed due process under the law. [Zia and Hasina] have been released on bail by the courts. One of the reforms we did was making the courts totally independent from the executive branch. Basically the process will continue under the next government.

Will Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina be allowed to stand for the elections?

Well, that will depend on the Election Commission. The law under which elections will be held stipulates certain conditions for anyone to submit a nomination. Anyone who satisfies these conditions is eligible.

Can there be an election without them?

I really don't want to speculate on that.

The parties are now asking you to withdraw the government's emergency powers.

I'll refer you to the municipal elections that took place in early August. We relaxed the emergency rules to allow for normal election campaigning. We haven't heard any complaint from any of the candidates.

But they are asking for the emergency measures to be withdrawn now.

Yes, but we are explaining that there is no reason elections can't be held — free, fair, credible elections — with relaxed emergency rules.

Emergency was declared in 2007 because of certain circumstances — violence in the streets, chaos. But that is not the case right now.

Yes, there has not been any disruption of normal economic activities during the past 20 months. But we'd like this to continue until the election. Please remember that one of the problems with the election process has been that money and muscle power were used in the past; in order to retain control over that, I think the emergency rules will help.

When TIME last spoke with you in March 2007, you had begun an anticorruption campaign. Tell me about how that has gone.

It's gone well. Quite a good number of people have been convicted by the courts. Cases against others are continuing in the course of law.

How many people have been convicted?

Probably about 70 people... 75 people. But the anticorruption strategy also has expanded to include preventive measures. So we are building up a campaign against corruption through the independent Anticorruption Council. I believe that this kind of comprehensive approach ultimately will make corruption feature less and less in our daily lives.

But if politicians under corruption charges come back to power in the elections... you can see how people may think it's all been wasted.

I don't think so. As I said, a good number has been convicted. Yes, some of those accused are released on bail and that has been done through due process of law.

We're talking about the two former prime ministers of the country.

Yes, but they are still facing trial.

The fear is that whichever party is elected will use the power to have all the charges against its own leadership dropped.

I think it's a question of whether we are going back to the [old] system. There have been major changes in the system. Institutions have been strengthened, and these institutions have gotten support from society at large. I think everybody hopes that will continue.

What will be the role of the military once the elections have been held?

Well the military has a role that is defined for them. They can always come in aid of civil administration: that's also provided for in our laws.