Politics in Bangladesh on the boil

THE endgame may have started, but this week it became clear that it will take its time to play out. On February 25th a warrant was issued for the arrest of Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); many people had expected police to haul her in this week. Mrs Zia (pictured in the poster above, to the left) is not only the archenemy of the prime minister, Sheikh BNPHasina; she is also virtually her government’s last standing opponent.

Over the past two months, as the confrontation between the two rivals has reached a fever pitch, people have stopped asking whether Sheikh Hasina would find a way to imprison Mrs Zia; now they are only asking when. (Mrs Zia stands accused of corruption, for siphoning cash from charitable trusts set up in the memory of her late husband, Ziaur Rahman—the president of Bangladesh when he was assassinated in 1981.) On March 4th, a court gave the answer: not yet. It postponed hearings in her case for a month.

Mrs Zia’s reprieve might have more to do with politics than judicial considerations. Rumour was that she would be arrested on March 4th. Then, just the evening before, diplomats from nine countries—including America, the European Union, Australia, Japan and Turkey—paid a surprise call to her office, which is also her last redoubt. Police have kept her barricaded inside for the past two months. The diplomats’ visit perhaps brought home to the government that if it were to be seen unjustly imprisoning a rather frail 69-year-old lady, it might in effect be helping Mrs Zia pose as an emblem of democratic virtue. Instead, the government seems to have contented itself to wait for the end of her trial. After all, if Mrs Zia is convicted, she can be locked away for life.

In her state of informal detention, and now with a life sentence hanging over her head, Mrs Zia is nonetheless the opposition’s only significant figure who is not yet behind bars. In recent months most of its other leaders have been put in jail, under house arrest or into exile. On February 25th police detained Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a politician who had sought to form a new political party. Tens of thousands of activists have been arrested. And a war-crimes court has sentenced to death the main leaders of the BNP’s closest electoral ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s third-largest political party. Meanwhile more than 120 people have died on the streets since January 5th, most killed by firebombs thrown by the opposition and many shot by police.

Conditions are hardly amenable for any future organisation of credible elections. Mrs Zia and her elderly advisers seem to be relishing the intensity of the standoff, perversely. More moderate figures from the opposition have all been sidelined. Instead space is being vacated for extremists, notably religious fanatics, who pose a growing threat. A reminder of that came on February 26th when an American-Bangladeshi writer was dragged from a rickshaw in Dhaka and hacked to death on the street. He had dared to criticise Islamist extremists online; in turn they had vowed to kill him.

It is unclear whether there is any peaceable way out. An adviser to Mrs Zia thinks a UN-monitored election would be one possibility. However, the UN squandered much of its credibility in this context during the time of a coup in 2007. One of Sheikh Hasina’s advisers says that the BNP simply must “wait till 2019”, ie the next election, for satisfaction. In the meantime, the economy continues to suffer. Street protests are preventing some of the massive garment industry’s production from reaching the market, which is in turn reducing the volume of orders, all to the dismay of business leaders and the rest of Dhaka’s elite. Some of them think another kind of change might be imminent. If the army, Bangladesh’s third political force, grows impatient over the appalling behaviour of the civilian politicians and turfs them all out, it would not be the first time.

The country’s more important foreign partners—America, India and Saudi Arabia, for example—will not be pleased by the prospect of democracy in Bangladesh collapsing outright, yet again. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is expected to visit soon. He could lend moral support to Sheikh Hasina for her fierce opposition to Islamist extremism, but he would also like to see Bangladeshi politics looking as stable, and moderate, as possible. Normally a visiting Indian leader expects, at a minimum, to meet the main leader of the opposition on such a trip. That could prove tricky this time around.

-The Economist


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