TOPICS: Bangladesh: A democracy in crisis

The prospective collapse of democracy in predominantly Sunni Muslim Bangladesh is raising concerns reaching far beyond the politically divided south Asian nation of 145 million people. A state of emergency and intervention by the army are distinct possibilities if already delayed elections fail on January 22. There are precedents aplenty: two presidents have died in military coups since independence from Pakistan in 1971 and the restoration of democracy in 1991 has if anything deepened the destructive enmity of the two main party leaders.

The main beneficiaries of institutional failure could be the Islamist fringe groups opposed to the country’s secular liberal tradition. The International Crisis Group links these organisations to an upsurge in terrorist violence in 2005, including the country’s first suicide bombings. A crackdown brought respite last year — although at a high price to civil liberties, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation into activities of the feared Rapid Action Battalion.

“This may only be a temporary suspension, with sponsors of the militants worried that violence was becoming an electoral and diplomatic liability,” the Crisis Group report warned. “The issues of foreign funding of extremism and the growing madrassa system are concerns for the long term ...” Increasingly influential, too, is the more moderate Jamaat e-Islami, part of the coalition administration led by Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP).

With an electoral boycott by the main opposition party, Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League (AL), threatened, and with troops deployed on the streets amid escalating protests, the outlook was worrying, Price said. Disputing poll results is a long-standing bipartisan tradition in Bangladesh. The difference this time is that the AL-led boycott, if it goes ahead, will destroy the election’s credibility, guaranteeing further instability. The interim government overseen by President Iajuddin Ahmed insists the polls must take place on time for constitutional reasons. But Sheikh Hasina is demanding prior changes to the electoral roll.

Worried about harmful effects on the economy, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry has called for a state of emergency to be imposed if no compromise can be reached. But extra-constitutional intervention was not the answer, the New Age newspaper said. “The prescribed remedy is undoubtedly more dangerous than the malady.” The deepening crisis in one of the world’s few Muslim democracies is causing alarm abroad. The US has urged a deal on the parties despite the system’s “many imperfections”. The EU warned that “a failure of the current electoral process would be a major setback for democracy and for the international credibility of the country”.

But the International Crisis Group said such hand-wringing was not enough; more active political engagement by western countries was required. —The Guardian