Is Bangladesh heading towards disaster?
One of the world's largest democracies in the Muslim world seems to
be descending into chaos, with violence, strikes, transport blockades
and business instability adding to an already strong sense of tension.
While Henry Kissinger was wrong to describe Bangladesh as a "basket
case" in the mid-1970s - it has for the most part been more than capable
of feeding itself since independence - there is nevertheless a strong
feeling that the country may not escape an equally damaging epithet -
that of a "failed state".
Bangladesh's latest problems stem from a not unexpected but decisive
announcement by the Awami League - and around 18 smaller parties allied
to it - that they will boycott general elections due later this month.
Fears are now growing that the future of the country and its 150
million population are now at stake. After last week's momentous boycott
announcement by the Awami League leader, Sheikh Hasina, more violence
and social unrest are very much on the cards.
The animosity between her and the leader of the other main party,
Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), seems to be as
great as ever. The two women are bitter rivals and barely speak to each
other. Their mutual loathing is reflected among their respective sets of
Bangladesh is one of the most politically polarised countries in the
world, even though the actual policy differences between the two largest
parties do not amount to anything significant.
But the ceaseless bickering and violent confrontations have meant
that the Bangladeshi economy - already fragile - is coming under further
pressure. That is bad news when millions in the population barely earn
more than $1 a day. The country is now reeling under a three-day
transport blockade called by Sheikh Hasina as part of her campaign to
demand a delay in the election and the removal of officials overseeing
the vote who she describes as "biased".
More than 40 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in
political violence since a caretaker government - designated by the
constitution to oversee the vote - assumed power at the end of October
to steer the country through parliamentary elections. Ominously, the
Awami League-led alliance has not only pledged to boycott the election
but has also promised to resist the voting. If that happens, there will
be a campaign of mass protests by the anti-election parties.
In turn, the pro-election parties will try to gain control over the
streets - and direct confrontations will be inevitable. A crucial factor
in all this is the role of the law-enforcement agencies - controlled by
the caretaker government - and their ability to curb any violence.
Despite the boycott decision, the caretaker government says that it
is determined to organise the election on time.
But analysts fear that the result might not be accepted nationally
and internationally, and the country would be plunged into anarchy.
The Awami League-led alliance says that conditions for free and fair
elections are not in place and the vote should be delayed.
They say that President Iajuddin Ahmed - in charge of the caretaker
administration - should step down and an up-to-date voter list be
published. "There is major legitimate concern about the process leading
up to a free and fair election," said analyst Debapriya Bhattacharya,
the executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue think-tank.
The most-debated issue now is whether there is any "constitutional
flexibility" which can be invoked in order to allow more time to
accommodate the Awami League demands. But the BNP of former Prime
Minister Khaleda Zia is not interested in that.
Dr Bhattacharya argues that such a stand-off is going to have a
serious impact on the overall development prospects of the country as
well as further complicate Bangladesh's "image crisis". "One possibility
is that with rough and tough measures the caretaker government pushes
through with the election, which of course eventually will not be
credible because so few candidates are participating," he said.
The other possibility is that the opposition campaign stimulates so
much pressure that the country becomes paralysed, forcing the caretaker
government to reconsider the election schedule and carry out electoral
reforms before announcing a new vote schedule.
If there is a complete breakdown of law and order, Dr Bhattacharya
said that martial law is not beyond the realms of possibility.
"But whatever may be the options, each party will always look for
constitutional cover so that they can somehow have a legitimate basis
for their action," he said. Many Bangladeshis are now doubtful about the
future of democracy in the country.
The BNP has already warned that the Awami League alliance will be
responsible if democracy is endangered. Analysts say the two main
parties must come to some kind of agreement if disaster is to be
"If Bangladesh wants to maintain its development prospects and
democratic credentials, it will have to have a credible election held in
a free and fair way," Dr Bhattacharya said. For Bangladesh - with 40% of
the population living below the poverty line - democracy and development
are interlinked, he said.
"If the country does not improve its governance through better
democratic practices, it will not have good development, and without
that, it is not going to sustain its democracy." Bangladesh's political
history has always been turbulent. Just how turbulent now depends on the
Awami league and BNP leaders.