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Bangladesh in turmoil

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Activists from Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami set fire to a ruling Awami League office on Jan. 5.   © Reuters

DHAKA -- A day after parliamentary elections in Bangladesh left the ruling Awami League in power, at least 20 people dead and the country in a deepening political crisis, the normally traffic-clogged streets of the sprawling capital were relatively quiet -- at least by Bangladesh's chaotic standards.

     While the election was over, yet another crippling general strike, or hartal, called by the opposition was already in effect -- meaning that many Bangladeshis were still traveling by bicycle-powered rickshaws to get around.

     It also meant a new round of turmoil that will have unpredictable consequences for Bangladesh's politics and its business sector, which until recently was gaining momentum.

     "The uncertainty is going to go on for some time," said Asif Saleh, a development expert at a nongovernmental organization in Dhaka. "The longer this continues, the effect is going to be much more long-term." The consequences of the marred election, he noted, has hurt rich and poor alike, with the business sector reeling, schools and shops burned to the ground and at least 120 dead and many more injured in the weeks before the poll.

     Uncertainty has been the name of the game for months now in Bangladesh, with the opposition Bangladesh National Party and its allies in the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party leading strikes and blockades that crippled towns and factories, costing the country's vital garment industry billions of dollars and hurting its agricultural sector.


Prime Minister Sheik Hasina's decision to proceed with the election despite a BNP boycott of the polls meant that 153 parliamentary seats -- more than half -- went unopposed, with 48 million voters effectively disenfranchised. Voter turnout was estimated at 20% to 30% -- against nearly 90% for the 2008 polls. The boycott and low turnout ensured the ruling party's overwhelming victory, and also guaranteed that the election was viewed as flawed, at best -- and illegitimate, at worst -- by foreign governments, opposition supporters and even some Hasina supporters.

     The U.S. said in a statement it was "disappointed" and urged all parties to find a way to hold "free, fair, peaceful and credible" elections.

     For many Bangladeshis, the bitter political stalemate between Hasina's Awami League and Khaleda Zia's BNP -- the two women have alternated between the prime minister's office and opposition over two decades -- is particularly painful given the gains made by this poor, densely populated and colorfully chaotic country of 150 million people.

     Over the last decade, Bangladesh has achieved annual economic growth of about 6%. That growth -- driven largely by the country's emergence as the No.2 garment exporter in the world, after China -- has made it a key cog in the global supply chain. Poverty meanwhile has been reduced by 19% over the past 15 years, according to the World Bank.

     But growth has come with enormous problems, including pollution, labor upheavals and safety concerns, magnified by last year's Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, which left more than 1,100 dead.

     "Our social and health indicators are much better than neighboring countries," said Saleh. "That's why this whole thing is a major setback. We hope it is a blip, and not a long-term trend."

     A defiant Hasina stood her ground Jan. 6, telling reporters that "an election can happen any time when BNP comes for a dialogue, but they must stop violence."

     The BNP boycotted the polls after Hasina abolished the constitutionally-mandated system of having a neutral caretaker government oversee the polls in order to prevent vote-fixing and violence. The system, scrapped in 2010-11, had been in place since 1991.

     "There is no doubt that no credible or acceptable government can be formed through this farcical show of election," wrote Enam Ahmed Chowdhury, an adviser to the BNP's Zia, in local newspaper The Daily Star.


Yet the BNP, which controlled the government from 2001 to 2006, has done little to curry mainstream public favor with its support for work stoppages -- and its alliance with Jamaat, whose leaders have been targeted in an ongoing tribunal investigating those involved in the country's bloody 1971 independence war that led to its separation from Pakistan.

     Critics say the tribunal is politically motivated -- a way of wiping out Jamaat. One Jamaat leader was convicted and hanged last month, and there may be more executions to come.

     Many people are disillusioned with both parties and their leaders, who are dogged by charges of corruption. And there is little question that the political strife has affected the garment export sector -- a $22 billion industry which accounts for about 80% of the country's exports -- with key transport routes blocked and growing alarm among foreign buyers about the country's political stability.

     Just before the polls, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch urged both the government and opposition to curb their heavy-handed tactics -- and echoed the feelings of many Bangladeshis. “The actions of Bangladeshi political leaders -- whether the government crackdown on the opposition or the opposition complicity in poll violence -- deprive the country’s voters of any true choice,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.

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