Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bangladesh's Non-Election

TAHMIMA ANAM

In early December, after weeks of strikes and road blocks called by the political opposition, the dairy farmers of the Rangpur district, in northern Bangladesh, started protesting the disruption to their business by pouring milk onto highways. For many weeks, they hadn’t been able to get their milk to the processing and packaging plants in the capital; instead, they had to sell it to local confectioners and small restaurants. Supply far outstripped demand.

Across the country, an average of half a million liters of milk was dumped every day that the opposition called a general strike or a blockade. After many such protests since late October, the dairy industry was on its knees. Many small farmers, like those in Rangpur, had borrowed money to buy their livestock and could no longer afford to feed their cows; they started selling the animals and looking for other ways to make a living.

Supermarket shelves in Dhaka grew more sparse. They carried little fresh milk, and no butter, except for shockingly expensive brands imported from India and Australia.

The crisis erupted after the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, objected to holding a national election unless the government first handed over power to a neutral caretaker body; it feared rigging otherwise. When the ruling Awami League refused, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia called a series of crippling protests.

B.N.P. supporters and Jamaat-e-Islami unleashed their anger on anyone who defied the strikes, destroying roads, damaging rail lines, torching buses — and killing about 200 people since late October, according to the British newspaper The Independent.

The milk farmers’ plight was just one example of the colossal waste caused by the chaos surrounding the election. Supply roads to the capital were obstructed, and across the country, milk soured on roads and vegetables rotted in fields. The garment industry, a major engine of the economy, was in jeopardy because of delayed deliveries to international buyers. Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters early this month that up to $1 billion in orders were at risk in the weeks ahead if stability did not return.

But as political negotiations foundered, the opposition decided to boycott the election. So when the vote took place on Jan. 5, like many of my fellow citizens, I didn’t bother to cast a ballot. The sole candidate in my constituency — an ally of the Awami League — was running uncontested. Some 152 other members of Parliament from the Awami League and affiliated parties also ran against no competition, and the 147 remaining Awami League contestants faced off against weak independent candidates. (In the end, the Awami League won 232 out of 300 seats.) Bangladesh is now in the unprecedented situation of having a Parliament with no real opposition.

How much staying power can such a government have? Enough to serve the whole term, it turns out, no matter how dysfunctional the situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has had the good sense of forming a new cabinet that is relatively fresh and untainted, leaving behind many ministers suspected of corruption. And while the Awami League has taken a hit in terms of popularity for staging an election with no serious contender, the B.N.P. seems to have come out of the experience even more discredited.

Many people have been put off by its hard-line stance and violent tactics. The B.N.P. has refused to sever its links to the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, even though that group was widely believed to be behind much of the street violence. On polling day and in subsequent weeks, Hindu minorities were targeted by Jamaat-e-Islami members simply for having gone out to vote. Especially in northern districts, where religious minorities are concentrated, Hindu families have been attacked, their homes torched and their businesses destroyed. According to one count, up to 700 people may have been affected. These attacks have been widely condemned, and not just by Hindus, with protests taking place throughout the country.

Most important, economic considerations will prevail over concerns about political representation, and this will favor the new status quo. The cost of more upheaval would be too high, and the prevailing mood now is for restoring economic stability. Businesses cannot afford another disruptive year. The Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent think tank, estimates the total economic loss at more than $6.3 billion. The transport sector has borne the brunt of the losses, followed by the agricultural sector and the clothing and textile industries.

Previous elections in Bangladesh were celebrated with great fanfare: Voters would display their inky thumbs with pride. Not this time. Still, after the near-standstill of this fall, a semblance of normality has returned. There has been no major public outcry yet over this lopsided election. Children are going back to school. The roads in the capital are reassuringly clogged with traffic again. Butter has returned to the supermarket shelves. The fundamental political issues remain, but for now, an uneasy peace holds.

First published in The New York Times, January 29, 2014

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”