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“Corruption has emerged as a great threat.”

7 minute read

Fakhruddin Ahmed doesn’t strike you as a tough guy. He’s mild mannered and academic in the way you might expect of an economist who has previously served as a central banker and a World Bank bureaucrat. He talks about spending time with his family and watching movies with his wife. He uses words like “epistemologically” and “baneful.” But, as Bangladesh’s current boss, the 66-year-old Ahmed is showing a steely resolve. Beginning last October, the capital Dhaka was struck by violent street clashes between rival supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. In January, a state of emergency was imposed, elections scheduled for that month were indefinitely postponed, and Ahmed was named Chief Adviser—in effect the Prime Minister—of a caretaker government made up largely of technocrats backed by the military. Since then, Ahmed has gone after allegedly corrupt former officials, beefed up the country’s antigraft body, initiated measures to make the judiciary more independent, and agreed in principle to establish a human-rights council, something Bangladeshi civil society has long demanded.

For a country widely perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt, the most dramatic aspect of Ahmed’s rule is his antigraft campaign against the establishment. So far, more than 160 senior politicians, top civil servants and security officials have been arrested on suspicion of graft and other economic crimes. The roundup has netted former ministers from the two main political parties and, most recently, even Zia’s own son Tareque Rahman. Last week Rahman, 40, appeared in court to face a charge (which he denies) that he extorted $147,000 from the owner of a Dhaka construction firm. The government has also frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts belonging to politicians—money it suspects was illegally obtained.

Bangladeshis have followed the anticorruption drive with a mixture of surprise and glee. Newspaper polls suggest that a clear majority of Bangladeshis support the present government even though it is unelected, has banned all political activity, and has yet to announce a date for fresh elections. On Tuesday, in his first extensive interview since coming to power, Ahmed spoke with TIME’s Simon Robinson in a meeting room next door to Zia’s old office. Excerpts:

TIME: Why impose emergency rule instead of holding fresh elections?
AHMED: Look at what was happening immediately before we came to power. Elections are meaningful if they’re held in a free, fair and credible manner and are based on a voter list that is error-free and prepared by a nonpartisan Election Commission. The absence of these conditions resulted in an impasse, which ultimately led to the declaration of an emergency; under the constitution, we were called in as a nonparty caretaker government … While we are focused on establishing a level playing field, we are also taking measures for economic reforms to increase economic growth and alleviate poverty—we cannot forget that … [But] our core objective remains holding a free, fair and credible election. To do that will require carrying out fundamental reforms so that the will of the people will be reflected truly in the outcome of the election.

What’s your role?
I look upon myself as a champion or leader to carry out [those] fundamental reforms, to make it possible to hand over [power to] a government elected on the basis of a free, fair election. The objective is strengthening Bangladesh’s democratic order.

Some people see the establishment of your government as a military coup by stealth.
Only a lack of understanding and appreciation of the situation in Bangladesh would provoke that kind of a comment. As I said earlier, the conditions under which we came to power are constitutional, and the military in Bangladesh really respects the rule of law and the constitution. Certainly, the military is backing my government. It’s called upon to aid the civil administration in times of emergency—natural or man-made. That’s not unknown in many [other] countries.

Why launch an anticorruption campaign?
Corruption has emerged as a great threat to good governance and, in fact, to democracy. A really free, fair, credible election has to be held in an atmosphere where corrupt means and practices do not unfairly influence the outcome. What was happening was that money, muscle and misuse of authority—the three Ms—were working to win an election.

You’ve gone after some big fish.
If we can successfully prosecute some of the known big offenders, we will not only earn thanks from the people but also send strong signals which will work as deterrents against future corruption.

Could either of the two main parties have gone after corruption as you have?
A nonparty caretaker government doesn’t suffer from the burdens of political patronage. Whether or not the political parties could have done so, I do not know. But they certainly lacked the political will and the courage in the past.

If you stay in power long enough, you may become part of that patronage system.
As long as we are focused on our objectives, as long as we are transparent in our actions, and as long as we feel that we are accountable to the people, the threat will not be there. We have to constantly think about what our objective is, what our focus is, and the fact that the people are behind us. We cannot let [them] down.

How long do you intend to stay in power?
The Election Commission has to decide when elections will be held. Before that, there is a need to carry out fundamental reforms of the political party systems, including registration and accountability to their own constitutions, and accountability to the people in terms of what they do with the money they collect. The Election Commission is also thinking about technical issues like a voter ID card to ensure that fraud is minimized, [and even] about transparent ballot boxes. All these reforms will take time. We are committed to holding elections in the shortest possible period but there is a wide acceptance in the country that the time that it takes to carry out these fundamental reforms should really be allowed, and then you hold elections. But let me hasten to add that we do not intend to stay in power a day longer than necessary.

Those reforms could take years.
Years? Definitely no. [But] some of those [negative] conditions [need to] be removed once and for all, not just for the next election but for elections thereafter as well.

Bangladesh’s recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus says he will form a political party. Is that a good thing?
As an economist, I always think that allowing better choices, whether in politics or economics or any area, is a good thing. This is what was missing earlier: good, honest candidates were prevented or discouraged from coming forward and participating in the electoral process. The more such people do [participate], the better for this country’s democracy.

Do you worry about a backlash from the political parties?
Not really. What we are doing has the overwhelming support of the people. Yes, there will be losers. In any reform process there are losers. And they may try to thwart the reform program. But I wouldn’t term that as a backlash.

Are you scared for your safety?
No, I honestly don’t feel at all threatened.

What do you do to relax?
Work becomes a chore when it becomes not enjoyable. I enjoy my work even if I’m working long hours and during weekends. I do try to spend more time with my wife and family. I watch movies occasionally, but these days I watch more the various talk shows for comments about the government or [the country’s] problems.

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