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Unchallenged, Bangladesh’s Leader Rides High

By BenarNews Staff
2015-06-19
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A poster of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears on a balcony at a community center in Dhaka, Jan. 4, 2014.
A poster of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears on a balcony at a community center in Dhaka, Jan. 4, 2014.
AFP

After outmaneuvering her rivals in recent political battles, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has grown bolder and supremely confident.

Since retaining power in the highly controversial election of January 2014, she has weathered crisis upon crisis, especially a series of blockades and strikes called by the opposition earlier this year that left nearly 200 people dead and cost the nation’s economy billions of dollars.

“She has virtually crushed her political rivals and there is no visible sign that anyone can mount a serious challenge to her authority in the foreseeable future,” Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Sujan, a group campaigning for rule of law and good governance, told BenarNews.

He was referring to both Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party.

Indeed, having failed miserably to oust Hasina through prolonged strikes and blockades, BNP and Jamaat leaders are now fighting for their very survival.

Opposition in disarray

Embroiled in numerous court cases emanating from charges that range from corruption to abuse of power when she was prime minister, Zia nowadays spends most of her time with lawyers, trying to avoid jail-time.

On Thursday, she lost a crucial appeal when the High Court withdrew a freeze on the Niko graft case and ordered her to surrender to the trial court within two months.  

The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) filed the case against Zia and 11 others in 2007. A year later, they were charged for allegedly causing a loss of 137 billion taka (U.S. $176.3 million) to the state’s exchequer by awarding a contract for gas exploration to a Canadian company, Niko Resources, when Zia was prime minister in 2006.

Besides Zia, most of the senior BNP leaders are in jail or evading arrest, leaving the party in total disarray.

Likewise, Jamaat-e-Islami, BNP’s crucial ally in opposition to the ruling Awami League, is also facing a serious test.

With two of its senior leaders hanged and other top leaders on death row – including its Emir, Motiur Rahman Nizami – for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, Jamaat seems rudderless.

In a further blow, Law Minister Anisul Haq told parliament in April that legal moves were underway to ban the party for its anti-independence role during the war.

“There’s no doubt that she has emerged as the most powerful leader, but concentration of too much power in one hand is not good for a country,” A.T.M. Shamsul Huda, a former chief election commissioner who heads a non-partisan group, Concerned Citizens Society, told a seminar in Dhaka last month.

Critics silenced

He was echoing the sentiment of other independent analysts and commentators, who seem to be losing faith in the country’s democratic future.

“It is a sad situation but there is no alternative to democracy for the healthy growth of any nation,” Majumdar, of Sujon, said with a tinge of frustration in his voice.

Such frustration is now widespread as most analysts, including journalists, have stopped criticizing Hasina out of fear of being on the wrong side and having to face the consequences.

Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the daily Amar Desh and a virulent critic of the prime minister, has been languishing in jail for the past three years without trial.

“It is quite clear that we’re heading for authoritarian rule. With the opposition seemingly crushed and the international community somewhat indifferent, there’s nobody to challenge her authority,” a respected commentator said on condition of remaining anonymous, referring to Hasina.

The view from abroad

In the international arena, two countries that matter most in Bangladeshi politics – the United States and India – both seem to have accepted the status quo.

“India has always stood by her and the United States, despite its concern over the controversial election last year, has concluded that the Hasina government is doing a pretty good job in fighting militancy,” Harun-ur-Rashid, vice chancellor of National University and a political scientist, told BenarNews.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh “has further bolstered Hasina’s position, as he publicly praised her zero-tolerance policy on extremism, especially her role in driving out Indian separatists from Bangladesh,” the academic said.

Economic strides

To be sure, ordinary people in Bangladesh do not seem to complain much about lack of democracy.

On the contrary, they appear to be content as they can now go about their lives without the threat of being fire-bombed or being caught up in violence as had been in their experience in recent years.

“It really doesn’t matter who is in power. We simply want to do our work and make a living in a peaceful atmosphere,” Abdus Samad, who runs a grocery store in Dhaka’s Karwan Bazar, told BenarNews.

Experts agree that nearly unbroken periods of upheavals and unrest since the birth of Bangladesh 44 years ago have made ordinary people somewhat apprehensive of democracy.

“It’s true that relentless violence in the name of democracy has impeded development, hampered business and discouraged foreign investment, and people are just fed up,” Mustafizur Rahman, an economist and executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue, a research organization, told BenarNews.

Citing the examples of Malaysia and Singapore, he said development could take place without Western-style democracy.

“All the economic indicators show that Bangladesh is making great strides and common people seem to be benefiting from the overall development,” he said, adding, “But we still want full participatory democracy to build a healthy society.”

Ruling party leaders are making it clear that they want to emulate the two Southeast Asian models in order to spur Bangladesh’s development.

“We want democracy, but not too much. We’ll now follow the Malaysian and Singapore models so that our people can prosper quickly,” Health Minister Mohammad Nasim told a party meeting in Dhaka last month.

According to official statistics, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product, despite the political unrest and turmoil, has consistently been growing by more than 6 percent every year; its foreign exchange reserves (U.S. $25 billion) is at an all-time high; and electricity output has jumped from 5000 MW to 11,500 MW since 2010. These days there are virtually no power outages, something that was unthinkable five years ago.

And more significantly, Bangladesh, which depended on rice imports to feed its huge population, has become an exporter for the first time in its history.

Shahriar Sharif contributed to this report.

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