Bangladesh Faces Political Gridlock

Bangladesh, born violently in 1971, has never had it easy. Since independence, the former east of Pakistan has had more than 20 attempted coups and extended periods of martial law.  A frequent victim of devastating cyclones and other natural disasters, the predominately Muslim South Asian nation has struggled to feed its people and rise out of poverty.  For the past year-and-half, Bangladesh has been run by a caretaker government backed by the military.  VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Dhaka and reports efforts to get Bangladesh back on a democracy track are moving slowly.

On the congested streets of the capital of the country with the world's highest population density, horns blare in frustration with Dhaka's notorious traffic jams.

Bangladesh is also suffering from political gridlock.

The caretaker government, backed by the army, has been in power far longer than it or anyone else predicted.  Elections were supposed to have been held in January, 2007, shortly after the caretaker government took over. The polling was postponed following weeks of political violence in which 30 people died and hundreds of others were injured.

Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the interim leaders say there is sufficient calm to set Bangladesh back on a democratic path, with the first step being a dialog between the government and the political parties.

The country's de facto external affairs minister, who is called the foreign adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, tells VOA News the government is already in discussion with some of the parties.

"This dialog is currently taking place," Chowdhury said.  "To date, we have reasons to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty.  It is progressing well.  We hope that it is the pressure of public opinion that will also create some kind of a consensus between the participating parties."

The parties say it is actually pressure applied by the military, not public opinion, which they are feeling.  And, so far, the two largest parties, which together garner support of an estimated 85 percent of the electorate, are not yielding to that pressure.

They insist that their jailed top leaders - both former prime ministers - be freed, because they are the only people who can lead any talks with the government.

In custody and facing corruption charges are the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh National Party's Khaldeda Zia.  The two political matriarchs are bitter rivals and violent clashes between their supporters in late 2006 led to the intervention of the army, as Bangladesh descended into chaos.

Many  Bangladeshis welcomed that move by their respected military.  But BNP Secretary General Khondkar Delwar Hossain tells VOA News that, amid the political gridlock and spiraling food prices, the caretakers have worn out their welcome.

"The people are 100 percent against this regime I tell you," Hossain said.  "And, people are suffering so much. They cannot publish the real news.  They have been gagged.  The judges cannot perform their duties according to the constitution, according to the law.  Everybody is being interfered [with]."

Amnesty International accuses the government of arresting people for political motives and using special courts that weaken the chances for fair trials by restricting access to defense lawyers and denying bail to those charged under the emergency regulations.

The military-backed government has removed most of the top layer of the traditional political establishment, with the arrests of 170 politicians and business people.

Many politicians and analysts here expect the two rival former prime ministers, known as the Battling Begums, to be convicted on graft and abuse of power charges.

The two top parties - and others which are sympathetic - could end up boycotting the planned December election, meaning an exiting caretaker government would have no credible victors with which to pass the torch.

The president of the JSD - the acronym for the National Socialist Party - Hasanul Haq Inu, says it will be a farcical election if the Awami League and BNP do not participate, because Bangladesh has waited 30 years for unbiased polling pitting the two dominant parties against each other.

"It will be a very dangerous political situation and the present scenario will be totally changed," Inu said.  "Minus the two political parties, the caretaker government should not hold a parliamentary election."

Acting Foreign Minister Chowdhury remains optimistic.

"Following the elections there will be a government that will be able to sustain the positive reforms that have been undertaken by this government and would be  able to bring better changes in the political structures and political style that will truly reflect the kind of pluralism that pervades this society," Chowdhury said.

For that to happen, the longtime rivals, the Awami League and the BNP would have to work together or at least be willing to peacefully play the opposition role when out of power.  There is no historical precedent in Bangladesh for that.

Awami League senior figure Tofail Ahmed, a former commerce minister, tells VOA News a frustrated public is now demanding the two major parties cooperate, for the sake of political and economic stability.

"I am sure, at the present moment, most of the political parties have decided, in their party forum, that all of us should work together and we should come to a national consensus.  And, that is not by the government but within the political parties," Ahmed said.

The fragile political atmosphere also faces growing economic storm clouds.

The World Bank says Bangladesh is among the countries at risk for severe
political unrest, if food prices keep rising.

The country's oil importer and distribution monopoly is proposing price hikes of up to 80 percent, another potential catalyst for a resurgence of public protest.

There is also a festering feud between war veterans and more than 1,000 alleged war criminals, accused of collaborating with the Pakistanis during the 1971 independence struggle.  The veterans, regarded as heroes here, say purging the alleged traitors from politics is even more crucial than disqualifying corrupt candidates.  That emotional campaign is another flash point that could ignite on the streets of Bangladesh. 

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs