Monday, January 15, 2007

Political Turmoil in Bangladesh


Bangladesh is currently experiencing grave political turmoil. Yesterday, the interim President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency and a delay to scheduled national elections. Since November, dozens have died in associated riots. However, like its cyclones, this is not a new phenomenon - it recurs every five years during election season. The main cause: Politics in Bangladesh is influenced not by the free will of the people, but by the manipulation of elections through money and muscle.

The present drama is being played out by the two most powerful parties in the country: the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Both have held power at one time or another, and neither has a clean record with respect to fair elections or corruption. But, under the BNP's longer tenure, opportunities for corruption have reached new heights. The world is not unaware of the extent. Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index," the global standard, has ranked Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world five consecutive times since 2000.

In this environment, the opposition party AL is seeking to reproduce its loss-turned-victory in the elections of 1996. At the time, AL was able to delegitimize the results of that year's first election through protests and orchestrate a second election that led to its assumption of power. This year, AL has already taken the first step by refusing to participate in the upcoming elections, claiming ballot rigging and voter roll fraud. The government has acted harshly in response, yet fails to contain AL protestors. Since the present saga began more than two months ago, 40 people have died in riots and demonstrations, millions of dollars of property has been damaged and economic activities have come to a screeching halt. There is no sign that the conflict is going to end anytime soon.

Perhaps even more unfortunate is the overall cycle in which the country is locked, marked by abrupt, undemocratic changes. For example, neither of the parties' two leaders--Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister and Leader of BNP and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the opposition Awami League party--came into power by her own right. Both were virtually inducted into their present leadership positions because of their family ties to the parties' founders, who were both assassinated. Khaleda Zia is the widow to the previous BNP leader, while Sheikh Hasina is daughter to the Awami League counterpart. While the original leaders' ideals have been mostly abandoned, their intense cults of personality have endured through these two women.

Despite their significant influence, however, neither party is able to perfectly manipulate nationwide election results. That is precisely why each party is now trying to outmaneuver the other, whether through street fights or by applying police power. All this transpires before a floundering caretaker government. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who through alignment with the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalist party had formed the preceding government, has left cronies in many key posts. She thus remains influential in the supposedly impartial interim body. To counter, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina has moved to form alliances with a number of political parties, including that of a former military dictator against whom criminal cases are pending. The apparent reason for Lt. General Ershad's inclusion is that he continues to control a significant amount of ill-gotten funds, acquired during his nine years of autocratic rule.

How the present political drama in Bangladesh plays out depends entirely on who is able to exercise muscle more brazenly. Until the game is played out, the country will undoubtedly be held hostage. To break the impasse, both parties might ultimately agree to some kind of election program. But unfortunately such an exercise is not likely to end in a resolution. If the past is any indication of the future, the losing party will not accept the fairness of the election and will continue with its violent protest. The current cycle of violence, blockade, and intimidation will continue. From the perspective of many social scientists, the world might face another "failed state" unless the present vicious cycle in Bangladesh is broken.

This commentary was first published in the Washington Post on January 12, 2007


Mahfuz R. Chowdhury is a Professor of Economics at CW Post Campus of Long Island University. (Special thanks to Adnan Ahmad at John Hopkins University)