A hail of bullets and rocks swept over Bangladesh's cities this
past weekend, spawning a deadly political crisis that threatens
upcoming elections in January. Although averted for now, as of
Sunday night, there are still pitfalls that may prove a boon for the
country's Islamist parties, observers say.
On Friday, the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which took
office in 2001 in a coalition with Islamist parties, officially
ended its five-year term. Bangladesh's Constitution stipulates that
a transitional, nonparty caretaker government must assume the reins
to help steer the country toward elections in January.
For several days this weekend, political leaders from the ruling
BNP and the opposition Awami League bickered over who would head the
interim government. Meanwhile, party activists sparred in violent
clashes that left 18 dead and hundreds wounded. But on Sunday
evening the current president, Iajuddin Ahmed, was sworn in as the
head of the interim administration.
For now a crisis seems to have been avoided, but observers
cautioned against jumping to optimistic conclusions. The days
leading to January's elections may be fraught with violence that
could benefit Islamist parties in the world's third largest Muslim
So continues a longstanding tradition of political violence in
Bangladesh. It is a crisis the country can ill afford, given the
disturbing expansion in recent years of Islamist political power and
a culture of intolerance.
"The violence we see on the streets of Bangladesh is basically
creating space for the extremists to exploit," says Samina Ahmed,
South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group. "They
might have sworn in the president, but we have to wait and see how
the opposition will react to this." Ms. Ahmed adds that lingering
disagreements about the elections could spark further violence
between the two parties.
Bangladesh remains a moderate Muslim democracy, though political
frustration is at an all time high in the country - one of the
world's poorest and most densely populated nations. The country's
inherently liberal traditions have always acted as a bulwark against
strict interpretations of Islam.
But in a story that has been repeated from the West Bank to
Somalia, Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest
religious party, have stepped in where the government has failed,
providing basic services such as water and sanitation to millions of
citizens who would otherwise be ignored.
Moments of reconciliation are rare and usually fleeting in
Bangladesh's long history of political violence. The country was
originally born out of bloodshed when it fought for independence
from Pakistan in 1971. Ever since, a bitter rivalry between the
country's main political parties, the BNP and the Awami League, has
arrested the political landscape and spawned a culture of conflict.
But the rise of Islamist politics and extremism is a relatively
new and disturbing chapter in the country's political evolution -
one that highlights just how much the democratic parties have,
through their rivalry, ground the democratic process to a halt. …