Friday, July 1, 2011

Q + A Is Bangladesh Heading Back To Political Violence?

Bangladesh on Thursday repealed a system of holding elections under a non- partisan caretaker administration that was introduced in the mid- 1990 s to try to end the violence and fraud that have often marred voting in the South Asian country. The constitutional amendment provoked unrest earlier this month, when opposition supporters clashed with security forces during a general strike called to protest against the move. It could trigger more violent protests by the opposition. Bangladesh has lagged behind the region in economic growth partly because of its history of political violence since independence in 1971 , and analysts fear more confrontational politics could derail its goal to become a middle- income country by 2021. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office in early 2009 and a general election is not due until late 2013. The campaign against the electoral change by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamic allies piles pressure on a government already struggling with discontent over high prices, growing unemployment and poor utility services. Following are some questions and answers relating to the renewed unrest:     WHAT IS THE MAIN ISSUE? Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the non-party caretaker system had to go after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in May.     The system, introduced in 1996 , generally worked well in keeping the peace and avoiding widespread rigging and fraud in parliamentary polls, though the losing side always complained of such abuses. Hasina's rival opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia accuses the government of attempting to cling to power. The ruling Awami League denies the allegation. Analysts say the brewing conflict over the issue could drag the country back into turmoil after the uneasy political peace of recent years. HOW DID THE CARETAKER SYSTEM WORK? Under the system, the ruling party hands power to a non-party interim authority that must hold a parliamentary election and transfer power to the elected government within three months. Bangladesh held three elections under the caretaker system, but it suffered a setback in 2007 when months of political violence prompted the powerful army to set up an interim authority, which stayed on for two years before holding a national vote at end of 2008. The army-backed caretaker government also led a widespread crackdown on corruption, in which both Khaleda and Hasina were put in jail for alleged wrongdoing, which they denied. The two women were freed ahead of the December 2008 election in which Hasina trounced Khaleda by a huge margin, winning more than two- thirds of the seats in parliament. Analysts and diplomats say the worsening political confrontations between the two women, often dubbed as "battling begums", could plunge Bangladesh back into political turmoil, threatening the country's fledgling economy and driving away hesitant investors.     WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES FACING THE GOVERNMENT? The government aims to achieve economic growth of 7 percent in the coming fiscal year starting in July on the back of higher exports and stable income from migrant workers. But this target may be missed if an opposition campaign to oust the government turns violent.     Hasina's government was widely applauded for its initial success in bringing down food and other commodity prices, and reducing diesel and fertiliser prices to help farmers, the mainstay of the country's agrarian economy. But soaring prices in global markets and corruption have partly driven costs higher, with inflation racing to a near three-year high. Price pressures are a major concern for the government as nearly 40 percent of the country's more than 150 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. The government has also been criticised fora recent crash in the stock market, where millions of small-time investors had put their money. In an effort to support share prices, the government has revived a tax amnesty offer that allows investors to pay 10 percent on undeclared money if they invest the rest in the stock market.     Unrest could also come from the export-oriented ready-made garment sector, where workers went on strike several times last year, demanding better benefits and wages. The authorities last year nearly doubled workers' pay, but it is still far less than what they had demanded.