Breaking the Impasse in Bangladeshby Representative Adam B. Schiff
Posted on 2014-01-15
SCHIFF. Mr. Speaker, the political standoff between the two main
political parties in Bangladesh has rocked that country and threatened
its democracy, its stability, and its economic progress.
Throughout 2013 and in the run-up to elections last week, a series of general strikes paralyzed Bangladesh, and hundreds were killed in clashes between rival political factions. Opposition leaders and human rights activists were arrested, and Bangladeshi courts were used to target opposition figures and their sympathizers.
The feud in Bangladesh pits Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the ruling Awami League party, against Khaleda Zia, a former Prime Minister who is the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP. The leaders, known to their countrymen as the ``two ladies,'' have dominated Bangladeshi politics since democracy was restored in the mid-1990s, when Hasina's Awami positioned itself as secular and social democratic in ideology and Zia's BNP as more centrist and religious.
Tense relations between the two women and their supporters were further inflamed last year when a third party allied with BNP was barred from participating in the elections and the government declined to dissolve itself in favor of a caretaker government that would exist only to supervise the elections. This had been the custom in Bangladesh in prior elections.
Prime Minister Hasina's actions convinced Ms. Zia that BNP would be better served by boycotting the polling, which the BNP did in the hopes that the government would be pressured into resigning before the vote. When the government did not accede to the BNP's demands, the opposition took to the street. But the government held firm and, amid diminished voter turnout and widespread violence, Awami swept last week's vote, deepening the crisis.
Born from a brutal civil war in 1971, Bangladesh has faced enormous challenges in its 43-year history--endemic poverty, one of densest populations in the world, and unpredictable weather that both sustains and destroys the country's year-round agricultural production.
Governance, too, has been a challenge, with the country consistently ranked among the world's most corrupt and the nation's institutions highly politicized. And nothing has come to symbolize the failure of governance like the garment industry and its horrific record on worker safety, a record that threatens the cornerstone of Bangladesh's economy.
In spite of these and a host of other challenges, Bangladesh has made remarkable strides. According to a report issued by the World Bank last June, from 2000 until 2010, Bangladesh experienced steady and strong GDP growth of nearly 6 percent per year on average. Even so, about a third of Bangladeshis live in poverty, and economic hardship is especially prevalent in the rural parts of the country.
Given the country's history, its recent progress and the hurdles remaining, if Bangladesh is to reach its goal of becoming a middle- income country by 2021, the question of governance is central and makes the political standoff that has gripped the country even more tragic and counterproductive. Bangladesh's middle-income aspirations are contingent on a significant rise in GDP growth and a broad reform agenda, neither of which is possible under current conditions.
Fortunately, there is a precedent that could allow for an exit from the impasse through new elections. In February 1996, elections were boycotted by Awami and other opposition parties, and the BNP took nearly all of the seats, touching off a crisis of legitimacy similar to that now gripping Dhaka. Four months later, new elections were held under the auspices of a caretaker government, and the outcome favored Awami.
Now, as then, the time has come for cooler heads to prevail and for a new election to be called that will give all parties the time and space needed to organize and campaign. The recent release of Ms. Zia from house arrest should be followed by the release of others detained for political reasons. There should be a mutual pledge of nonviolence, guarantees of noninterference in political campaigning by police and security forces, and a pledge to respect the people's mandate.
The people of Bangladesh, who have suffered mightily and who have also risen to every challenge over the course of more than four decades, deserve better than to be caught between two stubborn matriarchs. New elections should be scheduled and Bangladeshi voters given a free and fair chance in determining their country's future.