Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Political Acrimony Taxes Bangladesh's Economy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Political Acrimony Taxes Bangladesh's Economy

Article excerpt

Before he arrived in this capital city, farmhand Khadem Ali had never heard of the Bangladeshi Constitution. And yet political wrangling over this document is now driving his wife and children, and millions of Bangladesh's poor, to starvation and despair.

Mr. Ali came to Dhaka a month ago to look for work during the monga, a seasonal famine that hits the country's northern regions in the months before the winter harvest.

"For a while, we and our three children survived on one meal of millet and arum a day," Ali says of his life before he moved. "But until the crops ripen in the fields, there will be no work."

But when Ali first arrived in Dhaka, he saw a ghost town. A series of political blockades and violence has hit this city in the past several weeks, leaving more than 30 dead and scores more injured. The streets are normally empty by evening, shops and businesses are frequently closed, and people remain indoors. Food prices have spiraled upward by 40 percent.

In the run-up to general elections in January, Bangladesh's two main political parties have taken their rivalry to the streets. The result is a city of 12 million people that is being held hostage as much by a bitter, abiding personal rivalry as by genuine political difference.

The latest bone of contention between the two parties is the election commission appointed to oversee next January's general election. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stepped down from office on Sept. 29, with former judge M.A. Aziz heading the country's election commission, which will conduct January's elections. The influential Awami League, which lost the last elections in 2001, accused Mr. Aziz of rigging the latest voter rolls in favor of their BNP rivals.

Despite Aziz's announcement last week that he will take three month's leave from the commissioner's post, the league is not satisfied. Voter rolls, league supporters claim, still carry some 1.4 millionfake names. They have been blockading the capital for up to four days at a time demanding a new election commission.

"We will not take part in an election unless our demands are accepted. We reject the polls schedule," alliance spokesman Abdul Jalil told reporters Monday after commissioners announced the election date would be Jan. 21. The voters' list prepared by the election commission "has excluded many of our supporters and included fake names so the balloting can be rigged in favor of Khaleda Zia," said Mr. Jalil.

The BNP on the other hand is backing the commission, pointing out that meddling with the election arrangements is beyond the constitutional ambit of the interim government now in power.

"The [interim] government has no legal right to remove the chief election commissioner, and we will only accept constitutionally acceptable solutions," said Ms. Zia this week.

Heavy burden of political instability

But the real brunt of its violent political culture and stymied economic growth falls on Bangladesh's poorest - the 49.6 percent of its 140 million people who live on less than $1 a day.

"People like me, who rely on a daily income to buy food, cannot survive a whole week of unemployment," says Joynal Hossain, who drives a motor-rickshaw and lives in a city slum. "If my son fell ill tomorrow, believe me, I could not take him to a doctor. I don't even have the money to buy a kilogram of rice."

Meanwhile, Ali and his family have been sleeping on the roadside in the city's Farm- gate area, where construction companies send trucks at dawn every day to recruit day-laborers who are paid $2.50 for a 12-hour shift. So far, however, Ali has only found four days' worth of work.

It's no wonder that steady work is so hard to find. The frequent, large-scale protests have crippled the capital's transport routes and cut it off from the rest of the country. …

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