Amidst uncertainties, Bangladesh readies for polls

After almost 22 months under lockdown, Bangladesh is finally expected to go to the polls on December 29 in a general election to select a new National Parliament, with its political system likely to continue to be handicapped by the presence of the battling dowagers who have stalled political and economic development for well over a decade.

It remains to be seen if the return of electoral politics will spark the same violence that snuffed out democracy after three months of chaos in late 2006. The bigger question is whether the winning political party commits itself to the economic and political reforms that the caretaker government has painstakingly put in place, including infrastructure construction, economic modernization, enhanced tax collection and others.

On Sunday the Election Commission announced the new date after marathon negotiations with the largely secular Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her mortal enemy, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which maintains growing ties to Islamic fundamentalist parties although power appears to be the ultimate guiding political philosophy for both women.

The polls were supposed to be held on December 18, but the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s four-party alliance balked, laying down a number of conditions for their participation. Upazila, or sub-district elections are to follow on January 22.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, the former World Bank official who has largely run the country since the political system veered towards collapse after Khaleda Zia stepped down on completing her five year term in October of 2006, told reporters he was satisfied with the agreement. He also thanked the election commissioners for hammering out a ‘resolution of the stand-off.’

With the memory of the violence that paralyzed the country largely gone, the state of emergency is expected to be lifted sometime before the polls. The caretaker government finally backed away from a vow that the emergency would stay in place until its tenure ends on December 31.

The process of restarting the political system has not been particularly easy. The emergency was declared on January 11, 2007 after three months of battles on the streets of Dhaka and other cities. The country’s president, Iajuddin Ahmed, threw up his hands and stepped down as well as the head of the caretaker government and postponed elections scheduled 11 days later.

Ultimately the military stepped in and arrested flocks of politicians from both parties on corruption charges in a crackdown that extended all the way down to the provincial level. An estimated 200,000 people were arrested and hundreds were tried. Both Hasina and Khaleda were arrested, along with Khaleda’s eldest son Tarique Rahman, a high-profile businessman and BNP leader. He was granted parole for medical treatment abroad and is reportedly in London and apparently is in no hurry to come back.

Fakhruddin’s administration attempted to exile both women, who had traded the prime ministership between them since 1991. However, both political parties said they would refuse to take part in the polls unless the two, famously known as the battling begums, were allowed to participate.

As the two squabbled for power, the country, one of the world’s poorest, slipped further into economic disrepair until the military heaved them out with the country descending towards chaos.

Certainly rising militant Islamism is a growing problem. According to an analysis for the Harvard International Review by Sajeeb Wazed and Carl Ciovacco on Nov. 19, Islamic extremism continues to rise, partly because the military itself has been infiltrated by growing numbers of Islamists who trained for the Army Entrance Exams at madrassas. The military is attractive, the two wrote, because of both its respected status and its high employment opportunities in a country where unemployment ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent for younger males. Prior to the madrassa entrance exam campaign, only 5 percent of military recruits came from madrasses in 2001. By 2006, at the end of the BNP’s reign, according to the article, madrassas supplied nearly 35 percent of the Army recruits.

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There is enough instability for everybody. Per-capita income is only US$1,300 and public debt is a staggering 37.4 percent of GDP. Garment exports and remittances from Bangaldeshis working in the Middle East and East Asia are mostly responsible for economic growth of 5-6 percent.

Despite that, in the ensuing months since the end of electoral politics, the caretaker government has been given relatively good marks, particularly in making inroads against the endemic corruption, which extended down to every political level. Nonetheless, the economy faces severe difficulty. Flooding is common and widespread in a country 90 percent of which is less than 10 meters in elevation and which is regularly battered by typhoons.

Gross domestic product is projected to fall by 6.3 percent in 2008 over 2007 as business continues to slow, private-sector loan growth constricts, foreign direct investment is reduced and inflation rises. Some 20,000 workers have lost their jobs and more are expected to.

Despite these drawbacks the government has worked hard to improve the infrastructure, add to the always-inadequate power grid and expand the ports, according to an analysis for the Ministry of Finance by economist Salahuddin Ahmad. Tax collections are being modernized, fiscal incentives including tax holidays are being put in place to attract investment in basic industries and the country is seeking to develop its capital markets, as could be expected from Fakhruddin, a 20-year veteran of the World Bank and former head of Bangladesh’s Central Bank as well.

Although the caretaker government was initially supported by the majority of Bangladeshis, it became a target for civil libertarians both domestically and internationally. The United States and the European Union had already asked the government to lift the emergency ahead of polls. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh James Moriarty recently commented that the December election 'would not be credible if the authorities kept restrictions in place'.

Although the government appeared to be keeping to its promise of general elections before the end of 2008, massive protests were held by student groups in the third week of August and a series of violent rallies began at Dhaka University, spreading to different regions and compelling the government to impose curfews in at least six major cities, including Dhaka.

Amid the confusion, the Bangladeshi president, Iajuddin, commented that the 'nation was marching towards holding the general election as scheduled. "The government and the Election Commission are sincerely trying to hold a free, fair and credible election,"

The Bangladesh army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, also has repeatedly said his forces would extend all possible help to the Election Commission to prepare the voter list and national identity cards, necessary for a credible election.

"We assure you, we will accomplish the task with absolute professionalism," the army chief told local reporters.

The political parties in general welcome the decision of the government on polls although most objected to holding the sub-district polls dates so soon after the general election, thus the decision to extend them into January. Besides the Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League, other political parties also demanded the deferment of the upazila polls to avoid 'unnecessary conflict among people.”.

"If either the BNP or the AL abstain from the polls, the election will lose its authenticity,” said a Dhaka-based political commentator. “These two parties have the capability to create huge trouble in Bangladesh, where the government in Dhaka might not be able to run."

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Dhaka, he added, "I can see only troubled days ahead. This country has suffered a lot because of the endless greed of both these two party leaders in the past. And I guess good days are not waiting for us in near future."