Showdown in Bangladesh: On fire

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A country on the brink

WHEN Amulya Chandra Barman, a 45-year-old rickshaw-puller, boarded a bus in Dhaka last month, it was to go home to his village in the north of Bangladesh. Instead, he ended up in the burns unit of a hospital in the capital. A bomb was thrown into the bus, landing on the bag on his lap. His face and hands were burnt. The bag—holding a month’s savings in cash—was reduced to ashes. He is at least alive. This week eight people were killed in a firebombing attack on a bus in eastern Bangladesh. In all, about 60 people have died in a month-long transport blockade called by the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The BNP’s leader, Khaleda Zia, who has twice served as prime minister, has been confined to a party office in Dhaka, while the blockade of roads, railways and waterways has paralysed the country. This week the BNP added a national strike to the country’s agony. The trigger for the unrest was a banned protest to mark the anniversary on January 5th of last year’s farce of an election, in which the incumbent Awami League, led by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, was re-elected easily thanks largely to an opposition boycott. Since the protests began, more than 10,000 opposition activists have been detained. BNP leaders are mostly in jail, in exile or in hiding. This week the government temporarily cut the electricity and internet cables to Mrs Zia’s redoubt, presumably to put pressure on her to call off the blockade. But she seems determined to see this through to the end.

Bangladesh suffers a dysfunctional two-party system in which the two leaders, the “battling begums”, wage mutual vendettas at the country’s expense. For nearly a quarter-century they have rotated in office. The Awami League, in power since early 2009, has used its majority to entrench its power and make it impossible for the BNP ever to replace it. It has done so by abolishing the system under which neutral caretaker governments used to oversee elections, hounding BNP leaders and barring the BNP’s largest coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, for its avowedly Islamic platform. Now the government claims to be combating acts of vandalism and terrorism by the BNP. The opposition accuses the government of trying to create a one-party state. Both sides have a point.

The personal animus between the begums has fostered a winner-takes-all politics in which the futility of habitually rigged elections forces the opposition on to the streets. Mrs Zia’s now seems to want to bring the country to such a pass that the army will feel obliged to intervene. It will be loth to do so. It is mindful of its reputation and of lucrative UN peacekeeping duties that might be jeopardised if the West took exception to its actions. And when in 2007 the generals stepped in to back a non-party “technocratic” administration for two years, the country’s politics ended back at square one anyway.

However, with the BNP’s transport blockade, and violence and repression worsening, the army may sooner or later feel compelled to act. Nothing suggests the government will accept it faces a political crisis rather than a simple law-and-order problem. In other words, it will be highly reluctant to call an election. Politics has broken down. As Mr Barman puts it: “We, poor people, do not belong to any political party…Yet we are suffering immensely from the conflict of two parties.”

Source: The Economist