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Political acrimony taxes Bangladesh's economy

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.

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"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.

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"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.

The lucrative textiles export sector that employs more than 2.2 million workers, most of them women, is reporting losses of more than $70 million for every day that the blockade persists. The industry, which earns $8 billion a year, could see factory closures this year as a result of the blockades, according to leaders of the Garments Manufacturers Association. They are threatening to march on the presidential palace with their workers if the impasse does not end soon. In short, Bangladesh's economy faces an unprecedented crisis.

"This unending political violence is resulting in Bangladesh being tagged internationally as a country of continuous unrest, and buyers are beginning to run scared, fearing we won't be able to deliver on orders," says Fazlul Haque, the president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Bangladesh may also fall short of its economic growth projections of 6.2 percent for this year, economists say.

"Every day's growth leads to total [economic] growth and there is no doubt that the economic losses of every day affect the long term outlook," says Mustafizur Rahman, a director at the Dhaka-based economic think-tank, The Centre for Policy Dialogue.

Personal problems, national crisis

The latest series of clashes has much to do with personal hatred and mistrust between the two leaders of rival political parties.

Sheikh Hasina, who heads the Awami League, inherited her party position from her father, Bangladesh's founder and president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was killed along with most members of his family in a military coup in 1975.

Zia, on the other hand, is the widow of Major General Ziaur Rahman, whose four-year presidency ended with his assassination in a military coup in 1981.

While both women have served terms as prime minister or as the leader of the opposition in Parliament over the past 15 years, they never speak to each other, and often hurl the most acrimonious of insults at each other in the media.

Ms. Hasina believes that General Rahman was among those who plotted and killed her father on Aug. 15, 1975, and frequently says as much in public. Zia has taken to celebrating her birthday on Aug. 15, balking its observance as a day of national mourning when the Awami League is in power, and canceling state mourning altogether when she was prime minister.

"Before 1990 we had never heard that Khaleda Zia's birthday is on Aug. 15, and these birthday celebrations are an undisguised attempt to be spiteful, since the birthday recorded in her school certificates are different," says one political analyst.

Hasina has publicly accused Zia and her sons of stealing millions of dollars in corrupt deals during BNP's recent stint in power. Earlier this week, Zia's son Tarique Rahman filed a defamation suit against Hasina and two of her aides for "tarnishing" his family's image with allegations of corruption.

During her stint in power from 1996-2001, Hasina changed school textbooks to depict her father as the hero of the country's war of independence against Pakistan in 1971, and the one who made the proclamation of independence. She also required every government office to hang portraits of her father, proclaiming him as the father of the nation and had bank notes issued with his picture on them.

When Zia came to power in 2001, she had the textbooks rewritten to depict her late husband as a war hero and credited him with the proclamation of independence. She also had Rahman's portraits removed from government offices and reissued the state bank notes.

"Bangladesh has become victim of a crude power struggle between its two major parties, intensified by the animosity between the two ladies," says Nurul Kabir, editor of the daily New Age, published from Dhaka, and a political analyst. "The parties have no distinct difference in their politics, and hence take opposing views on nearly everything," he says.