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Nobel winner's entry into Bangladeshi politics stirs debate

When Bangladeshi microloans banker Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, he became the darling of a nation often known only for its abject poverty and devastating natural disasters.

Mr. Yunus – whose antipoverty microloans to poor women have earned him the nickname "banker to the poor" – was celebrated here for his refusal to toe a party line in a country where even top academics are sharply divided across rival political camps. His modest lifestyle and his three-decades-long dedication to the antipoverty cause were extolled in the media, and there were popular demands that he should head an interim government.

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His stature at home grew with his international acclaim and close personal friendship with former President Bill Clinton and his wife, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York, which many believed helped cast Bangladesh in a more positive light.

But six months later, Yunus is surrounded in controversy.

The Nobel Laureate has launched his own "Citizens' Power" political party, capturing the public imagination with promises of a departure from the violence, vitriol, corruption, and abuse of power that has characterized Bangladeshi politics. But many ordinary Bangladeshis say that Yunus should not sully his image by joining politics. Others question his decision to launch a party at a time when a military-backed interim government is ruling Bangladesh in a "state of emergency" after violent protests forestalled elections scheduled for Jan. 22.

The new regime has detained almost all major leaders of Bangladesh's two main political parties, the Awami League and the BNP, including the former prime minister's son, to investigate their links to corruption.

Yunus prompts talk of 'cleaner' rule

Debapriya Bhattacharya, a prominent civil-society leader and a director of the Dhaka-based economic think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue sees Yunus' entry into politics as positive.

"A positive outcome of Yunus's party is already apparent as the Awami League and the BNP are both talking about internal reforms to a party system characterized by a lack of democracy, influence of black money and muscle power, as well as a mismatch between commitments and delivery, when either were in power," Mr. Bhattacharya says.

Yet, while most Bangladeshis desperately want change in a political culture embedded with corruption and abuse of power, Yunus's Citizens' Power – which intends to field 'clean candidates' – has at best drawn mixed reactions.

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"Many people who love and respect Yunus and are intellectually close to him are resisting his entry into politics because they fear it will make him a controversial figure," says Atatur Rahman, a political analyst and a professor at Dhaka University. "It is impossible to win elections in Bangladesh without spending millions [of taka] in campaigns, and if he wants to win elections, Yunus will more likely have to conform to the existing political culture rather than be able to change it radically," says Mr. Rahman.

"We love and respect Yunus very much – and he should remain above petty politics and cheap strategies to win elections. We want him to become an ombudsmanlike personality in public life," says Golam Mohammad Rana, a student at the University. Yunus was scheduled to be the main speaker at a recent convocation ceremony at the university, but the university revised its decision after student and teacher groups protested, identifying him more in his new political avatar rather than as a social entrepreneur.

Double standards?

The talk in political circles keeps returning to the timing of Yunus's move. "We are worried that Yunus is coming into politics backed by powerful groups within the Army and civil society, as well as international powers," says former lawmaker Rashed Khan Menon, who heads the Workers Party of Bangladesh. Mr. Menon believes the creation of Citizens' Power is following the pattern in which the BNP and Jatiya Party were formed to transition a military dictatorship into democracy.

"The fact that Yunus is being able to carry on political activities when all the other parties are straitjacketed by the state of emergency implies a tacit endorsement by the current regime," says Awami League politician and former public servant AMA Muhith.

In his new political role, Yunus's friendship with Mrs. Clinton may also turn out to be a liability in a predominantly Muslim country where anti-American sentiment is still peaking over the Iraq war, say analysts.

"Yunus's friendship with the Clintons will definitely affect his political career as she is known to have supported the Republican invasion of Iraq, and in Bangladesh the US is seen as one force regardless of which party is in power," says Menon.

Bhattacharya says Yunus's international connections are an asset as well as a liability. "Some people do indeed believe that Yunus' international profile prevents him from acting as an autonomous agent and that he is construed to be more sensitive to concerns abroad, but in an increasingly globalized world, his friendship with someone like Hillary Clinton can also be an asset for a country like Bangladesh," he says.

Yunus's need to define platform

Even as rumors abound that aggrieved factions within the two major parties will join Citizens' Power in the coming months, analysts say Yunus's plans to contest all 300 parliamentary seats in the delayed elections is still too ambitious.

Calls for him to articulate a platform are increasing. "Yunus has yet to articulate his political platform, so the entire focus is on his personality and his past actions," says Bhattacharya.

"Unless Yunus reveals who he is politically, what he wants to do, his ideologies, and his core party members, he will not be able to earn the trust of people across the nation as a politician," echoes Rahman. "It is not enough for people in the villages of Bangladesh that he is Yunus; politics is a different game.

"Yunus certainly has a political prospect, but it is not a bright one," says Rahman. "I don't see his party winning a majority in Parliament anytime soon."