A longstanding, bitter rivalry between the two main political parties in Bangladesh has led to widespread unrest (Australian), leaving a country typically perceived as a moderate Muslim democracy in a state of chaos. The political crisis threatens to roll back modest reforms in a country still riven by poverty and corruption.
The opposition alliance, led by the Awami League party, has imposed nationwide blockades and called for electoral reform. It accuses the ruling, right-wing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) of machinations to rig the upcoming January 2007 parliamentary elections. Protests began again (Reuters) when the central electoral commission announced a January 21 date for those elections, despite opposition requests to first investigate mass irregularities in voter rolls.
The two sides also clashed over leadership of an interim government after Prime Minister Begum Khaled Zia stepped down in October. The Bangladeshi constitution allows for a caretaker government, led by the supposedly neutral chief justice of the supreme court, to assume power in the ninety days leading up to parliamentary elections. But Chief Justice K.M. Hasan refused the post after riots broke out, in part sparked by his BNP ties. Iajuddin Ahmed, who serves in the largely symbolic role of president, reluctantly ascended (BBC) to the post instead.
A report on the current election controversy by the India-based South Asia Analysis Group says the selection of Ahmed was unconstitutional. The president should have been the sixth in line to head the interim government, but members of the opposition party agreed to his accession because they saw him as a better choice than other options available under the constitution. Faced with a political crisis and the demands of the opposition party, the caretaker government may not be able to hold parliamentary elections by January, leaving Bangladesh “saddled with an ‘unconstitutional government,’” says Sanjay Bhardwaj in an article for New Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Even if elections are held as scheduled, the deep divisions between Awami League head Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also a former prime minister,and her archrival Zia show no signs of fading. The two women have competed for power since Bangladesh, the world’s third most populous Muslim nation, embraced democracy in the early 1990s. A Congressional Research Service report (PDF) describes the history of their enmity, as well as U.S. fears that political chaos could give rise to increasing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh.
Islamist violence “has dried up” after a crackdown on militants in March 2006, says an October report from the International Crisis Group, but it warns radicalism will grow in the current climate of “dysfunctional politics.” The ruling coalition has dismissed as propaganda claims of a growing tide of radical Islamists with possible links to Pakistani militants. Sumit Ganguly, a South Asia security expert, writes in a United States Institute of Peace report that the growing number of Bangladeshi radical groups, which have made incursions across the border and added to the turmoil in northeast India, “underscore the state’s inability to perform the quotidian tasks of maintaining public order, providing essential social services, generating employment, and pursuing public works.”
Despite Dhaka’s gains in controlling population growth and lowering the infant mortality rate, over 40 percent of the country’s 140 million people continue to live in poverty. Also, persistent corruption serves as an obstacle to development; Transparency International ranked Bangladesh 156 out of 163 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index 2006.