Asia's Democracy Backlash

Op-Ed Current History
Asia once was regarded as the vanguard of a global wave of democratization that, over the past three decades, has swept through southern Europe, Latin America, and Africa as well. In recent years, however, Asia has witnessed a democracy backlash.
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So intense is the chaos in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka that to an outsider it often seems miraculous that the city actually functions.  At intersections, mobs of rickshaws, motorcycles, and luxury cars vie for space with vendors and homeless people wandering in all directions.  Sidewalks are crowded with so many people—the megacity is one of the largest in the world—that you must push through the pack just to move.

Normally, the city’s politics mirrors its daily life.  For years, university students allied with either of the two major parties have led boisterous rallies and street protests at election time, demonstrations often so fevered that they descend into violence.  Vendors sell huge numbers of vernacular and English-language newspapers, which offer tens of thousands of words of political coverage.

But over the past two years, Dhaka—or at least its politics—has quieted considerably.  In January 2007, a caretaker government preparing for a new Bangladeshi election stepped down, probably because of pressure from the military, and the army soon asserted itself even more.  Working only barely behind the scenes, it organized a new government, declared a state of emergency, and soon detained thousands of political activists, putatively as part of a campaign to eliminate graft from politics.  After promises to hold a new election, the military and its caretaker regime scheduled voting for the late date of December 2008.

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