Bangladesh decides, but will anything change?

December 28th, 2008 - 2:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Bangladesh’s much-delayed ninth general election has evoked keen interest in the country as well as among the world community. The polls Monday (Dec 29) are being monitored by 200,000 observers, scores of them from international bodies, the US, the European Union and neighbouring India, as well as by local NGOs.The general election comes after 23 months’ rule by a military-backed caretaker government. Its anti-graft drive, that pushed over 400,000 behind bars, even if well-meaning, has virtually come to a naught with at least 48 accused, under-trials and even those convicted, joining the poll fray.

Bangladesh’s politics remains confined to the charisma of its two women leaders - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia - both former prime ministers, who continue to talk at each other rather than debate issues that need urgent tackling.

Efforts of the business community and the intelligentsia to bring them on a single platform failed. Hasina at least held a teleconference in a select question-answer exercise with voters and also spoke to captains of trade and industry, while Zia, who had threatened a boycott at one stage, criticised everybody and charged them with being against her.

Unlike 1991 and 2001, the two leaders did not address the media during their no-holds-barred campaign and made emotional appeals to voters. The promises they made during the shortest-ever, two-week poll campaign seemed more in the nature of local solutions to local problems.

Bangladesh’s political class has betrayed no change in approach to tackling its myriad problems, including transforming the country’s image from a nursery of militancy to a moderate Muslim nation that can gear up a declining economy in the wake of the global slowdown.

Bangladesh heavily depends upon its manpower and garment and knitwear exports. Protectionism prompted by economic problems and local unemployment among the importing nations could hit Dhaka badly in the coming months.

Islamist militancy that received a big boost in the wake of 9/11, as was evident during the attacks on Bangladesh’s religious minorities in 2001, remains a major problem. Banned outfits continue to regroup and flourish. They also figured in rumours last week on threats to kill Hasina and Zia.

The issue has its domestic version in the form of Islamist parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and other similar parties, opposing the freedom of Bangladesh in 1971 and continuing their campaign against those who collaborated with the Pakistani authorities during the Liberation War.

Significantly, the Islamist parties have shown no repentance on this score. On the contrary, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Matiur Rahman Nizami chose the country’s ‘Bijoy Diwas’ Dec 16, the day that sealed the country’s separation from Pakistan, to reinforce his ideology.

Besides Nizami’s diatribe, India was also the target of a covert attack by Zia, who accused rival Hasina of working for a “puppet” government that would “sell sovereignty”.

The manifestoes of both Hasina’s Awami League (AL) and Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) conveyed their preferences: the AL talked of good relations with immediate neighbours - India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar — but left out Pakistan. The BNP’s document made no mention of India.

While Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed’s caretaker government would transfer power to the winner and bow out, the armed forces’ role would need to be keenly watched.

Although Bangladesh did not witness another martial law, like it had three times before since 1975, Western think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) has speculated that the army may not return to the barracks after the poll.

The army has so far played fair, remaining behind the civilian regime while furthering its own interests. Zia in her last speech Saturday assured the army in particular that she would not seek “revenge” if elected to power, summing up the military factor that would impact Bangladesh’s politics.

While the expectations are many, the choice remains with Bangladesh’s 80 million people who will decide whether they want a transition to a moderate polity or one that gravitates towards religious extremists.

(Mahendra Ved can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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