Saturday, September 27, 2008

Foreign Policy of Bangladesh

Foreign policy is increasingly becoming more and more crucial for a country's development as traditional national boundaries fall all around us under the pressure of globalization. In all countries, foreign policy formulation and its implementation are given extremely serious consideration and dealt with professionalism that is constantly being reviewed for higher standard. In Bangladesh , unfortunately we have not treated foreign affairs with the seriousness that it deserves and implementation mechanism makes our foreign policy handling anything but professional where the Foreign Ministry competes with a number of other Ministries/agencies in an environment that is not always cooperative.

Apart from the institutional weaknesses involved on the Government side, Bangladesh also suffers from the lack of organizations in the private sector that deal with foreign policy issues and render assistance to the Government in articulating the foreign policy issues in a coherent manner where all stake holders are brought into the equation. In any world capital, there are are many such organizations or think tanks. In Dhaka, only recently the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) was created with the objective to fill this void.

In Dhaka at this point in time, there are a very large number of retired professional Ambassadors who have spent years in the area of formulation and implementation of Bangladesh's foreign policy. But there is no mechanism or little at the moment to bring their experiences into the loop. CFAS , in which I am a Director, has been envisaged to do this. This blog , an experimental one, has been designed to encourage others with background similar to mine to do so , so that we can together create a broad forum for exchange of thoughts and ideas with the intention to help the Government in the professional formulation and implementation of Bangladesh's foreign policy.

My blog is interactive, I would welcome readers' views on articles that I have posted and would post in future. Depending on what interest this blog creates, I have an intention to welcome issues from the readers for discussion on this blog site.

Khaleda-Hasina summit: Is it a good idea?

Published in The Daily Star, September 27, 2008

THIS Government was doing its best not too long ago to get rid of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, believing that such a move was in nation's interests and easier said than done. It tried the minus-two formula but failed. Then it attempted to break the two parties to form a “king's party”. That too failed. Now the Government has realized that there cannot be politics in Bangladesh without Khaleda and Hasina, nor without the BNP and the AL. The Commerce Adviser as the Government's Spokesman has thus suggested a “Summit” between the two ladies.

A reality check underlines the fact that the two ladies have firmly re-established their position as leader of their respective parties, neither of which has broken. This Government's initiatives for political reform have also not succeeded. It does not have the power anymore that it had when it came to office with widespread support of the people to exert pressure on politics. When politics has returned back to the laps of the two former Prime Ministers, what can a Summit between the two achieve?

A working relationship between Khaleda and Hasina, when Bangladesh came out of its long tryst with military dictatorship in 1991 could have achieved wonders for the nation. A lack of it influenced politics to degenerate into the streets where the two main parties, the BNP and the AL tried to dislodge each other from office to which the people freely elected them. Hundreds of days were lost in hartals that the two parties indulged in their unconstitutional ways to force an elected Government out of power in which the damage to the national economy ran into thousands of crores of taka. It is just not that the economy was damaged; people's livelihoods and their children's education were all equally adversely affected. State sponsored corruption earned Bangladesh the infamous crown as the most corrupt country in the world and we came to the doorsteps of being a failed state. In their lust for power, the politicians refused to acknowledge that hartals just made governance impossible but had no impact on its duration for despite the hartals, the three elected governments completed their terms.

It is common knowledge that the two ladies dislike each other immensely, the intensity much deeper in Hasina. There have been strange manifestations of the personal level where such dislike was taken. When the AL declared August 15th as National Mourning Day in 1996, the BNP started celebrating this day as Khaleda Zia's birthday. When Hasina came to office, her close associates were instructed to address her as “sir” because Khaleda Zia was referred to “madam“ in official and party circles when she was in power. It is a pity that the two ladies, who are both victims of political assassinations, are so opposed to each other at personal level.

It is however worse that those who have been advising the two leaders never tried to ease the animosity between Khaleda Zia and Hasina that was at the root of the politics of agitation, violence and general mayhem in the streets. Instead, they did enough to make the two ladies drift further apart, afraid that by suggesting they make friendship, they would incur their wrath. Hence, they did the opposite, fanned their dislikes and helped sustain an unbelievable and unhealthy political climate that has harmed the nation immensely.

The same people are again by the side of the two leaders, apart from a few who are in jail. When the two leaders themselves were in jail, some of these leaders, encouraged by the minus-two initiative, had called for reforms in their respective parties. Now they are therefore more sycophantic to get back into favour of their respective leaders. The recent meetings in the Awami League have all been about Hasina and how much the nation and AL needs her leadership. Inside BNP, it is worse. In their first meeting with Khaleda after her bail, they elected her President for life, knowing this is fascism and the party constitution does not allow this. It is return to the politics of sycophancy in both the parties. The AL is out to re-establish the supremacy of their “Netri” while the BNP, their “Desh Netri”. Thus in both parties, the climate is not conducive for the Summit.

Of course, the two leaders could themselves decide on the Summit. But what would be its outcome? The problem between the two is not political for if it is so, there could be a resolution by discussion. It is deeper, something that Barrister Rafique who is taking upon the Commerce Adviser's call for the Summit is not competent to handle, his respect and acumen as a lawyer and his closeness to both the leaders notwithstanding. The problem between the two is rooted in their psyche that only a professional can help resolve. One must not forget that Hasina and Khaleda had no professional help after their tragedies. In case of Hasina, given the depth of the tragedy, the need was much greater. A legal mind, no matter how competent, may not be able to make any headway with the problem.

1/11 has created consciousness among the people against the nature of politics of the Awami League and BNP before emergency, their frustration with this Government notwithstanding. The details of corruption in top leadership in the two parties must have convinced Khaleda and Hasina that they have suffered humiliation largely because of their associates, though their failure to control them is unacceptable. On personal level, though cases have been framed against them for corruption, it is unlikely either will be finally convicted for neither has taken money for personal gains. In case of Hasina, she and her sister have gifted to the nation property many times more than the amount for which she is being accused. These factors are likely to weigh heavily on the two leaders as they start a new phase of politics in Bangladesh. 1/11 is a watershed in our politics.

A summit is not the realistic step to cash upon the gains the nation has achieved at considerable pain. Politics and its future now depend on how Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia handle their parties and their party leaders; not how they conduct their never-existing relationship with each other. It would be more fruitful if the Chief Adviser and the CEC would instead sit with the two ladies separately for the following. First impress upon them that their working relationship is crucial for the country and in the past, Bangladesh has suffered immensely as a consequence of the lack of it. Second, convey to them that there is a consensus in the country that their dislike should not be at the expense of the country's future. Third, urge them to contest in the elections and accept the verdict. If they have problems with any issue relating to their participation, let them hear these and sort these out so that neither would have to resort to violence after the elections. Fourth, encourage them to nominate honest people in the next elections as there is now a consensus against corruption in politics. Fifth, make Parliament the main focus for resolution of conflicts through a bipartisan approach on national issues once elections are held. Finally, urge them to make hartal history and break the nexus of politics and crime. The CA has not yet shown his worth; let this initiative be his litmus test that he deserves the post he is holding at a critical stage of our history. Barrister Rafique could supplement this process by talking to the ladies separately instead of making a media event with a Summit.

A Summit between the two ladies is seventeen years too late. The focus should now be elsewhere for let us not forget that a lot has happened in the last eighteen months that has perhaps made the two ladies wiser. They need to be convinced that between them, they have Bangladesh's future in their hands and that theirs and the nation's enemies are in their own midst - the sycophants - who did not raise a finger when they were both incarcerated and they have suffered for the greed and corrupt nature of these sycophants by being in jail where they should not have gone in the first instance if they had controlled these enemies of the nation. If they can be made to see these realities around them, their closeness would follow naturally without the need of a Summit that seems to be coming to us as another media fanned drama. That is the last thing we need.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bush said to give orders allowing raids in Pakistan

Posted in The International Herald Tribune (New York Times) on September 17, 2008

The order allowing allowing U.S. forces to operate in Pakistan without the approval of the Pakistani government underscores U.S. concerns over Pakistan's ability and will to combat militants. Is the order justified?

Bush’s secret order allowing ground attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s terrorist infested North-West without informing Pakistan’s intelligence is a dangerous development. While one can understand US’s impatience that all operations conducted against the Al Qaeda and Taliban have failed because of suspected tip off to the terrorists by Pakistan ISI, nevertheless unilateral attacks in the virtually inaccessible North-West tribal area of Pakistan will be counter productive. First, the attack carried on September 3rd under this secret order has not netted any serious terrorist but has resulted in civilian casualties. Second, it has and if such attacks continue, will strengthen already deep anti-US feelings in Pakistan that will strengthen the terrorists rather than weaken them. Finally, Pakistan is now without a strong leader and Zardari’s credentials to lead have already been weakened by the stories that have found their way to print on how he found the route to Pakistan presidency. The ground attack as well as those being conducted from the air with Pakistan military’s intelligence’s knowledge will only cause more and more civilian casualties which the weak leadership in Islamabad will be unable to tackle, that will enable the terrorists free hand to take the anti-US sentiments to the streets. Pakistan thus could be forced to another stint under military dictatorship or come close to being a failed state, either prospects not at all welcome for winning the war on terrorism. A return to military dictatorship could give strong leadership in Islamabad but will open the rest of the country free for the terrorists for with the departure of Mushraff, ISI has renewed its earlier nexus with the Talibans and Al Qaeda.

No matter how one looks Pakistan at present, the situation there is grim. The ground attack under Bush’s order has just added wind to the fire. It is legacy that has come back to haunt both the US and Pakistan for what the two did in the past to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At that time, Pakistani intellegence, US military intelligence and the Talibans and Al Qaeda worked hand in glove and built up a partnership that went very deep. The US left with the nexus solid after Soviet Union fell and it continued right up to 9/11. Mushraff’s friendship with Bush and his resolve to fight jointly the war on terror merely pushed the nexus under the surface. It has now re-emerged with the departure of Mushraff.

For both US and Pakistan, Mushraff’s departure has led to a catch twenty two situation in fighting the war of terror for Islamic fundamentalism forces in Pakistan have wide public support. Now under Pakistan’s weak political leadership, ISI has come out in support of the fundamentalists. It is difficult to predict the future course but not that difficult to predict that Bush’s secret order will only muddy an already muddy situation.

Posted by M Serajul Islam, Dhaka, Bangladesh — 17 September 2008 5:16 pm

Friday, September 19, 2008

Border attacks: Impact on Pak-US coalition against terror

Published in The Daily Star, September 19, 2008

THE cross border ground attack from Afghanistan into Pakistan's tribal North West on September 3rd by helicopters involving commandos of the US Special Operations Forces to hunt down Taliban and Al Qaeda in their sanctuaries without Pakistan Government's knowledge has placed US-Pakistan coalition to fight terror under serious stress. It came three days before Asif Ali Zardari was elected President and was the main subject at his first press conference where journalists cornered him for his innocuous reaction on the attack. The US attack could not have come at a worse moment for Zardari who has a tainted image and little political experience and badly needs to create an image that he is not a US lapdog. It was left to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff to take the strongest stand against the US action, calling it a threat to Pakistan's sovereignty that would be met at any cost.

The cross border ground attack is part of a three phase American plan to try and capture top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders including Osama Bin laden and Ayman al Zawrahri. It was carried under an order that Bush signed secretly in July and became public knowledge only after the September 3rd attack. Attacks from helicopters and Predator unmanned drones with knowledge of Pakistani military intelligence was being carried out for some time and seven such attacks were carried out since August 13th causing significant number of civilian casualties and discontent in Pakistan. Earlier on August 27th, General Kayani had a meeting abroad USS Abraham Lincoln with senior US military leaders where he underlined public support for military operations for winning the war on terrorism. Later, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged Kayani's argument although it is now clear that Kayani was not informed about Bush's secret order.

The resurgence of the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan's fragile north-west had been worrying the US for some time. This year 113 US soldiers have already been killed in Afghanistan against a record 111 last year and 519 deaths since the war against terrorism started seven years ago. The White House had been under increased pressure from the intelligence and military to use ground force to attack Al Qaeda and Taliban in their sanctuaries without informing Pakistan's military intelligence, which the State Department opposed for keeping together the coalition that was weakening for a number of reasons. Bush finally agreed with his military and intelligence when he was given enough evidence that Al Qaeda and Talibans were being tipped off by Pakistan's ISI about operations against them well in advance.

General Kayani has been backed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani fully on his tough stand. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party is the largest opposition, has called for Pakistan to pull out of the coalition. In a country, where despite the alliance at the top with the USA, anti-American sentiments are widespread, the cross border ground attack has not created the passion in the streets that was expected. The media, however, has criticized Government's reaction as lip service, hinting instead at a secret deal between Washington and Islamabad on the cross border ground attack. One reason for the subdued public outcry is that the main Islamic Party of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman has joined the coalition with Zardari's People's Party and thus has been restrained in arousing public sentiments. The Ramadan is another reason for the subdued public reaction. One issue is clear though that Kayani made his statement without consulting the President that could hint at bumpy relation between the two in future; that is not a good omen for Pakistan's attempts to return to democratic rule.

Apart from the issue of the cross border attack, Pakistan has not been happy for some time, even when Mushraff was in office. That her contribution has not been acknowledged in Washington properly, having so far sacrificed more than a thousand army and police personnel in fighting the war on terror against public opposition is the main reason. The unilateral ground attack has thus added salt to the injury.

The September 3rd attack under Bush's secret order underscores USA's deep mistrust of the ISI. But then Pakistan's ability to pull out of the coalition is easier said than done. Pakistan Government has high stakes in keeping the US happy because of the billions of dollars she receives in aid. Before 9/11, Pakistan was a pariah state to the USA because Mushraff had usurped power through a military coup. Yet, after 9/11, it was Mushraff who received one of the first calls from Bush and Pakistan became USA's closest ally in the war against terror. It allowed its territory to be used for bringing down the Taliban in Afghanistan that was shielding Osama Bin laden and Ayman Zawrahri. A President who could not even hope for a courtesy call at the White House officially before 9/11 was invited to share time with the US President at his Crawford Ranch, a place reserved for just a few of the world's leaders as Bush and Mushraff became buddies and USA and Pakistan partners in the war against terror. Mushraff, to his credit, used US aid and friendship for Pakistan's economic development extremely well.

Nevertheless despite Mushraff, Pakistan's public opinion remained sympathetic towards the Islamic fundamentalist, proven by the many assassination attempts on him, some involving people assigned to give him security. The irony is that it was the US encouragement that created not just wide public support in Pakistan for the Islamic fundamentalists; it was the US that brought Pakistan's ISI to close interaction with the Talibans to end the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over a decade the ISI, the Talibans and US intelligence worked hand in glove against the Soviets. When Soviet Union broke, the US withdrew abruptly from Afghanistan without acknowledging that their encouragement had created the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The US's sudden withdrawal understandably did not destroy the nexus between the ISI, the Talibans and Al Qaeda that was merely suppressed when Mushraff took Pakistan to join the US coalition. With the weakening of top leadership in Pakistan, the nexus is surfacing.

Pakistan is facing a 'catch 22' situation; damned if they stay with the coalition, damned if they do not. In fact Pakistan is in no position to decide the issue, Kayani's resolve to protect Pakistan's territorial integrity at any cost notwithstanding. The two sides must sit and resolve US's claims that its troops stationed in Afghanistan can cross into Pakistan anytime without permission under the rules of engagement that Pakistan hotly contests. Till then, the US action under Bush's secret order is bound to make Pakistan's volatile politics even more volatile and uncertain. The embarrassment it has caused will favour the extremists. The worst predicament faces Zardari because he is the one who would, as President, have to face the developments from the cross border attacks as the focal point. If such attacks increase, the US would expect him to back the attacks, something that he can do only by becoming unpopular with his people. Already, many questions have been raised about him for the way he found the route to Pakistan's presidency. If he fails to satisfy public opinion by backing the US on the issue, he would be seen as a US lackey, something he can ill afford if he intends to remain President a long time. Those who had cheered in the streets when Mushraff resigned may have to think again for despite his bragging, Mushraff had demonstrated the ability to lead Pakistan. Pakistan is facing a very uncertain future and her tryst with military dictatorship may return again. US could expedite that by more cross border attacks that would only make Pakistan's politics more fragile and make it difficult for her to support US in a manner that would ensure victory in the war against terror. September 3rd cross border attack is thus a watershed in US-Pakistan relations.

At the point of writing, Pakistan's new leaders seem to have opted for diplomacy, dropping sharply on the rhetoric, although not abandoning it altogether. Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar has claimed that the Government has received assurances from State Department and Pentagon that September 3rd action will not be repeated; the two sides will exchange information and Pakistan military and paramilitary will take action against the terrorists. This is a statement to placate Pakistan's domestic needs. Possibility of Pakistan-USA relations deteriorating over Bush's secret order may not end so easily; not till a new President enters the White House for Bush may yet be hoping, now desperately, to net Osama and Al Zawrahri before he moves out! Meanwhile all Pakistan's leaders can do is hope that US would relent on cross border and missile attacks and public reaction would remain subdued.

The author is former Ambassador and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS. e-mail serajul7

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bangladesh at Crossroads

Published in The Daily Star, September 13, 2008

BANGLADESH is at cross roads; lessons learnt since 1/11 could unite us towards a better future or a failed one if they are ignored. This government came at a time when the BNP and the AL, in pursuing their respective self-interests, had set Bangladesh on course to becoming a failed state. The BNP was scheming to return to power.

The Caretaker Government (CG) headed by the President led the public to believe that the BNP would come back to power through unfair means. The AL was determined not to let that happen and did whatever was necessary towards that end. In the seesaw battle that emerged, governance had become impossible. 1/11 put an end to the politics of disorder and destruction and brought back sanity to governance and public life.

The CG started off well tackling corruption fairly and in a transparent way after AL (one time) and then BNP (three times) had earned for Bangladesh Transparency International's title as the most corrupt nation on earth. People's hopes were raised when the CG incarcerated Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina together with some top leaders of AL and BNP in their drive against corruption, including Tareq Zia who had become a widely talked about person in that context.

Leading businessmen and bureaucrats who were perceived to be corrupt were also arrested. The government's steps for reform of important institutions like the Election Commission, the Anti Corruption Commission, etc. to make the fight against corruption sustainable were widely welcomed by the people. The so-called reformists within the BNP and the AL were also encouraged to openly call for reform in their parties, acknowledging that neither practiced democracy in their internal affairs.

Somewhere during taking these good measures, the CG lost its sense of proportion. The ACC and the NBR openly and the Joint Task Force silently went after far too many people than they could handle, forgetting that perception of guilt and proving it in a court of law are not the same thing. They also perceived wrongly that corruption could be weeded out completely by a CG with a limited tenure where such a responsibility has not been entrusted upon it by the constitution. There was another fundamental mistake they made believing that in a country where the relationship between income and prices in the market is irrational and illogical public servants could be totally honest.

The CG's popularity nosedived with Sidr that created havoc in the economy. Around then, prices of essentials that Bangladesh needed to import like rice and edible oil rose sharply in the international market. The price hike that occurred as a consequence hit the majority of the people very badly, particularly the fixed income group. The government's explanation about the international market did not convince anybody because when prices in the international market fell, there was no impact on the domestic market. Prices of essentials produced locally also rose. In Bangladesh's history prices of essentials never rose so quickly and so steeply and the average people never suffered (and are still suffering) as much as they have under the CG. The business community that could have eased the market did little because this government had summarily dismissed them as corrupt.

This government's attempts to manage politics also failed. First, it failed with its minus-two formula when the two former Prime Ministers refused to leave the country. Then it failed to create a new political grouping by trying to break the two main parties. Then it encouraged the main parties to break from within which too failed. Its attempt to form national government was also just an idea that never took wings.

The CG, which explained emergency as a civilian government with military in the wings to aid it when necessary, did not leave anyone in doubt that it was the military exercising real power as the latter openly talked about their “vision” of democracy and foreign policy. The government also never resolved whether it was a CG or an interim government and behaved like either to suit its purposes. The Chief Adviser seldom came across in public imagination as one in control.

Advisers chose the media to show that they are in charge and, without realizing their folly, even informed the public through the TV about “negotiations” to release political leaders whose cases are in court! Fear of falling prey to the anti-corruption dragnet paralyzed the economy and civil bureaucracy. The CG realized the mistake but took too long to create the Truth and Accountability Commission (TAC) to jump-start the economy and to give the bureaucracy confidence. The TAC now languishes without work. Those the TAC could have given reprieve to revive the economy are facing court cases and thus cannot come before it; others, including the bureaucracy, see more logic to wait it out.

People who supported this government wholeheartedly started losing confidence in it by the time Sheikh Hasina was granted bail. The manner of her release gave a wrong signal to the public; that its fight against corruption was weakening and that it was seeking a “safe exit” from the mess it made with governance. When Sheikh Hasina was arrested, she was not even shown common civility as a woman and former Prime Minister. When she was released on bail, she was treated as a presumptive Prime Minister with four Advisers calling on her within hours of her release and the CA making a courtesy phone call to her! Sheikh Hasina's release was followed by speculation in the media that Khaleda would also be released. While this remains pending,

Tareq Zia has been granted bail despite ACC's unsuccessful efforts with the High Court, giving the impression that it alone wants to pursue the anti-corruption agenda - a feeling that has been strengthened with most of the high-profile politicians and businessmen arrested in the drive against corruption now free on bail.

The people's disappointment notwithstanding, the CG has achieved notable successes. First, it has exposed the corrupt face of politics and politicians, creating conditions for reform from within. Second, it has exposed corruption in a large number of politicians in both BNP and the AL that will convict many of them, making them ineligible to contest in the next elections. This will give the political parties the opportunity to nominate honest people for the next election. Third, because of the awareness it created among the public on the corruption issue, political parties will feel discouraged to nominate people with image problem. Fourth, The ACC has established itself as an institution that will weaken the nexus of corruption among the politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. Finally, the EC has made changes in the electoral laws that will make future elections fair and more transparent.

The nation stands at cross roads; its politics, whether one likes it or not, back in Hasina and Khaleda's hands as a result of the mess that the CG has made by stepping on every section of the society, minus the armed forces, with its anti-corruption agenda and failure to control the market. The AL and BNP have not broken apart. The so-called reformists are now trying their best to be forgiven for daring to oppose their leaders. The electoral alliances are shaping up exactly in the same manner as in the pre 1/11 days. The CG has no other alternative but to allow the new dynamics in politics to develop and let the elections decide the future of Bangladesh for people's patience, and also that of major donors, will not last if for any reason the elections are delayed.

Within that prospect, there is reason to hope that Khaleda and Hasina will not conduct politics in their old style, which was doing pretty much what they pleased. The public awareness the CG has created will put pressure on the next government for good governance. Reforms in the EC will make the next elections more transparent. The strengthened ACC will be a better watchdog on all types of corruption, including those in the election process. Both parties will find it difficult to agitate over election results because they are now aware that mindless agitation benefits no one, is fatal for the country, and the public is against it.

The new faces expected to enter the next parliament in place of many old ones who would not be able to contest for legal reasons will give the Parliament a much better chance to work so that political parties could deal with their conflicts there, making way for hartal and vandalism in the streets much less frequent. Such politics could even encourage bipartisanship on national issues like economic development, fight against corruption and terrorism and foreign policy. Finally, the so-called reformists could also feel encouraged to tell their leaders when they go wrong and not when they are incarcerated so that politics could be free of sycophancy and Hasina and Khaleda could see reality better although their recent behaviour does not make one optimistic on this count.

The time under the CG may thus not be wasted time. It has created possibilities for the nation to hope. It now depends on Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina and their parties to let the nation achieve these possibilities. Otherwise, the day when Bangladesh becomes a failed state and a hot bed for Islamic fundamentalism may not be that distant.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fukuda’s resignation - Is political turmoil inevitable?

Is Japan returning to its old political habit of electing more than one Prime Minister a year after Koizumi had tried to change that by remaining in power firmly for five years? Is political instability that was endemic in the pre-Koizumi era, coming back to Japan? Yasuo Fukuda's resignation as Japan's Prime Minister this week, rather abruptly, means that since Koizumi's departure less than 2 years ago, Japan is going to have a third Prime Minister soon.

Although Fukuda's resignation has come abruptly, he was never securely straddled in office. In fact, Fukuda's political career seemed all but over after he dropped out of race when the Liberal Democratic Party chose Shinzo Abe as its President following the departure of Koizumi in September 2006. It was revived when Abe was forced to resign amidst mounting political tensions and failing health a year later in September 2007 that revived Fukuda's dying political career. Fukuda is a low profile politician, at his best working in someone else's shadow. When Koizumi was the Prime Minister, Fukuda as the Chief Cabinet Secretary, exercised a great deal of power, particularly in the key area of foreign affairs where he was the one in control, with full backing of Koizumi. Fukuda also had then extremely close links with the bureaucracy and was one of the pillars upon which Koizumi had built his almost unquestioned dominance and influence over politics as Prime Minister.

As a Prime Minister, Fukuda has been disappointing. He himself admitted in public that he lacked the charisma to lead Japan at a time when the country needs strong and charismatic leadership to deal with the deepening economic recession in the country. After trying a few tricks to hold on to power amidst growing unpopularity of his government, like a cabinet reshuffle last month and an economic stimulus package worth US$ 107 billion only last week, Fukuda finally gave up when the popularity of his government in the opinion polls fell to 29%. He felt that he could not face another parliamentary session that was due to begin on September 12 because of the role being played by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan that holds a majority in the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament, the Diet.

In fact, Fukuda's tenure was made extremely difficult by the attitude of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the Upper House of the Diet, by their policy of opposing all legislation put on the table by the LDP. Fukuda also became very unpopular with his Medical Bill for the elderly. He thought it would be better for the LDP to elect a new President who would then automatically become the Prime Minister because of LDP's 2/3rd majority in the Lower House (with its coalition partner the New Komeito Party) to lead the nation. His continuation as the Prime Minister would only delay firm legislative action to deal with Japan's current economic miseries and also LDP's chances in the general election next September. His sudden resignation was also influenced by problems with political funds, pension records, scandals in the Defense Ministry and personal health problems.

The opposition DPJ has asked for snap election notwithstanding the LDP's 2/3rd majority in the Lower House where a Government is made to rise and fall under the Japanese system of parliamentary government. The DJP is seeking snap election despite LDP's strength in the Lower House based on the failure of Abe and now Fukuda to provide effective leadership, aith the argument that these failures and Fukuda's Government's extremely low popularity reflect people's disfavor with the LDP and the need for a change in governance through a general election. The DJP also feels that the party's resounding victory in the Upper House elections in September last year, when it won 113 seats against 84 by the LDP, also suggests that most Japanese want LDP's leadership to be tested again through another general election.

However, the DJP's call for early election is not expected to find favour with the LDP. In September 2005, Koizumi dissolved the Diet and called for early election after his pet postal privatization bill was defeated in the Upper House where some LDP members voted against their own party. In that election, Koizumi named nearly 100 new faces of whom 83 won (lovingly called Koizumi'z kids), many defeating old LDP stalwarts who were expelled from the LDP by Koizumi for opposing his postal privatization bill. These new Parliamentarians would like the Diet to complete its full term, afraid that in a snap election they may not succeed in returning to the Diet. Also, with 293 seats of its own and 20 seats won by its ally the New Komeito against the DJP's 113 seats in the current Lower House, the LDP is legitimately under no obligation to accede to the DJP's demand and can continue till the next election due in September, 2009.

Thus Japan is set to elect its third Prime Minister in two years. A front-runner has already emerged in Taro Aso, the current Secretary General of the LDP and former Foreign Minister. Like Fukuda, he comes from a family that gave Japan a Prime Minister. He is the grandson from his mother's side of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida while Fukuda is the son of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. Unlike Fukuda, who favoured diplomatic posture towards China, Aso is hawkish. In Japan's politics, the litmus test on who is hawkish and who is not is easy to discern based upon a politician's inclination to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that honours Japan's war heroes and also includes 14 Class A war criminals, constituting a major bone of contention between Japan and China. Aso, like Koizumi, favours visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and therefore is considered hawkish while Fukuda is a moderate because as Prime Minister, he did not visit this Shrine and sought deeper understanding with China in recognition of China's emergence as a powerhouse. While Aso has made his intentions clear to contest for the post of LDP president, another LDP leader who could have been a formidable candidate to oppose him, current Chief Cabinet Secretary and former Foreign Minister Machimura, has indicated that he is not interested to contest. That has made the field an easy one for Aso although many LDP members may not be comfortable with him. In fact, feelers have already gone out to Koizumi who could return now and contest for the LDP President's post with the younger members of the LDP but he has declined. One another name that is being mentioned is that of former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, a former TV celebrity and conversant in Arabic, having studied in Cairo. But it is very unlikely that in Japan's male dominated politics, a woman could become the country's Prime Minister. It is interesting to note that faction bosses who had settled the issue of a LDP President in the pre-Koizumi era are playing little part in LDP's politics now due to Koizumi's efforts to rid the LDP of factions within it.

Given the current scenario, Aso who is 67, seems most likely to become Japan's next Prime Minister after the LDP elects him President on September 22nd. As Foreign Minister, he had visited Bangladesh in 2006 and has good feelings for Bangladesh although on that trip he made Japanese aid conditional upon good governance. His charm and charisma may help him and LDP win back voters' approval for on that count, he and Fukuda are in sharp contrast. Koizumi's five-year long leadership during which he captivated the imagination and interest of most Japanese with his personal qualities, often against apparently insurmountable odds both in his party and outside, has now made charm and charisma indispensable for a Japanese Prime Minister. How much of it Aso has may ultimately decide whether or not Japan will have one more Prime Minister between now and September next year. Given Japan's economic recession that does not seem likely to end soon and the growing power of the DJP, it seems more likely that should Aso fail to last, the LDP would have no other option than to call for an early election. It already seems that the Koizumi era was ages ago!