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A Pyrrhic Victory? Bangladesh Poll Brings More of a Violent Deadlock

Outlook for democracy and fragile economy is bleak as both opposition, government dig in

FOR Bangladeshi Muslims, this week's festival of Id is one of the most important religious holidays. It marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and is a time for rejoicing.

But this year's celebrations will be subdued. Daily life has been marred by violence and demonstrations, normally hectic bazaars have been affected by ongoing strikes, and hundreds of thousands of workers are yet to receive their annual bonuses.

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A civil-disobedience campaign that began Saturday, called by the opposition following last week's general elections, is likely to put an end to the brief respite the country enjoyed from unrest during the Id festivities.

The campaign will be just another step in the opposition's strategy of forcing the government to step down in favor of a neutral caretaker administration to oversee new elections. Although the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won a crushing victory in Thursday's general elections, the opposition, which boycotted the polls, has refused to accept the results. Out of the 207 of the 300 seats in which winners have been declared so far, the BNP won 205, one went to an independent, and another to a candidate of the National Democratic Alliance.

The election was marred by low voter turnout (estimated by independent sources to be between 5 percent and 15 percent), widespread violence, and allegations of fraud. Partial repolling has been ordered in nearly one-third of the constituencies because of ''electoral irregularities.''

The Awami League-led opposition, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, termed the election a ''farce'' and called on the judiciary, Army, and civil servants not to take orders from the ''illegal'' BNP government.

Although Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has rejected allegations that her party rigged the polls, she may not be able to ignore the opposition's call for fresh elections if the violence of the past two years continues to escalate.

As well as increasing the possibility of military intervention if a civil-war-type situation develops, many analysts say Mrs. Zia must consider the high economic cost of continuing unrest.

Zia has two options, according to the editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka. ''One is to stay put,'' says Mahfuz Anam. The old guard within her party is advising her to sit tight, predicting that the ''opposition will eventually run out of gas.''

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''Then there will be another stream of advice, which tells her that if [she] wants a stable government and a stable democracy [she] will have to bring the opposition in and hold the elections under a caretaker government. The thing to see in the next month or two is what advice she will take,'' Anam says.

Although the government gave some ground to the opposition in the lead up to the polls on the issue of a caretaker government, the two sides were divided on the issue of who would exercise power in this temporary administration.

While the ruling BNP insisted that the chief executive be from its party, the opposition demanded that a nonpartisan person, acceptable to both sides, be selected. Unable to reach a compromise, the opposition boycotted the election.

With both sides digging in for a long period of political confrontation, many analysts say the outlook for Bangladesh's fragile economy and its nascent democracy looks bleak.

Rather than laying the groundwork for a resolution of the crisis, the election has made it more difficult to broker an agreement, according to the chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, Rehman Sobhan.

''Even if the ruling party offers to negotiate a constitutional compromise with its opponents, its political authority, now derived from a nonparticipative election, will be immensely weaker than when it commanded its legitimacy from a domestic mandate,'' says Professor Sobhan.

Meanwhile, the strikes and violent confrontations between the opposition activists and government supporters have taken a heavy toll on the economy of one of the world's poorest countries.

Economic growth, which was running at 6 percent before the current crisis, fell to around 4 percent between last September and December. Inflation has soared and the level of national savings, essential for investment, has fallen. Many businesses have been unable to give their employees Id holiday bonuses because of the losses sustained due to political instability.

Worst affected has been the country's main export earner and engine of economic growth, the textile industry. Almost one-quarter of the country's 2,000 garment factories have shut down because of strikes and tens of thousands have been laid off.

''If we fail to make this textile sector successful, the total country will be ruined,'' says Enamul Hoque, a garment exporter.

According to the president of the Bangladesh Economic Association, Wahiduddin Mahmud, the economic cost of political instability cannot be calculated in purely financial terms. ''The real loss is in terms of the opportunities lost, it is in terms of what Bangladesh could achieve in a stable political and economic environment in the next couple of years,'' he says.

''That window of opportunity we inexorably closed because of this uncertainty in political and economic spheres and the lack of confidence by investors that this will inevitably entail,'' Mr. Mahmud says.

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