Bangladesh at Risk

Political chaos and bloodshed threaten to erase hard-won economic gains
Bangladeshi activists during an ongoing strike called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Dhaka on Jan. 8 Photograph by A.M. Ahad/AP Photo

In Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections on Jan. 5, everyone lost. The vote was marred by bloodshed, boycotted by the opposition, and notable for a dearth of actual voters. The results reveal only that the country’s bitterly divided political parties need to try again. Running largely unopposed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Bangladesh Awami League had won a majority of seats even before polls opened. Yet no government that forms out of these elections—which Hasina’s own son admitted were “half-baked’’—will ever command domestic or international support.

At the same time, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Hasina’s archrival Khaleda Zia, has undermined its own legitimacy in recent months with a campaign of disruptive strikes and business shutdowns. Its Islamist allies have staged deeply unpopular attacks on civilians as well as political workers; hundreds have died in political violence in the past year. Although, in a fair vote, anti-incumbent sentiment would probably have carried the opposition to victory, a strong showing wasn’t guaranteed. At least one pre-election poll showed the BNP barely favored over the Awami League.

Confrontation threatens both camps. The BNP appears to hope that if the instability continues, the army will intervene in its favor. The ruling party seems to believe that its handouts to military brass have bought loyalty, leaving the government free to suppress the opposition. Both assumptions are dangerous: An army takeover might not be bloodless—or short.

The military has ruled Bangladesh for nearly half its 42-year existence. Now, though, the country has more to lose than it once did. Since the 1990s, Hasina and Zia have traded power relatively peacefully despite their differences, and during that time, Bangladesh has reduced poverty and improved health and education. Life expectancy now stands at 69.2 years, and infant mortality levels have dropped. New elections are needed. Political leaders must find a more civil way to carry on their competition. Bangladesh has lost enough.


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