Bangladesh doesn't have to go back to being a basket case

Bangladesh made the Guinness book of world records on 16 December. It was Victory day, the anniversary of independence from Pakistan, and 27,000 people held up coloured placards to form the world's largest human flag – a show of solidarity in what would turn out to be a fractious and divisive year. It had begun with great hope, as a mass popular movement against religious fundamentalism brought a secular agenda to the forefront. But that was quickly followed by a backlash, as the parties of the religious right rallied their supporters. The popular protest movement and its aftermath, named after Shahbag, the section of Dhaka in which it was born, foreshadowed months of crisis marked by the execution of a war criminal, a spate of electoral violence, and last Sunday, a contested election.

At the heart of the current conflict is the contest between the Awami League prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party, Khaleda Zia – a rivalry so bitter that the pair can hardly bear to speak to one another. Over the last 20 years the electorate has handed power back and forth between Hasina and Zia. But this time Zia refused to take part in the elections at all until a nonpartisan caretaker government – abolished by Hasina in 2010 – was reinstated. Along with its main ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, the party of the religious right, the Nationalist party's protest has turned violent, with an estimated 500 people being killed by the end of the year.

I arrived in Dhaka six weeks ago, hoping the strikes, blockades and violence would end before to the elections. But all attempts – by the US, the UN and foreign diplomats – failed to get the leaders together. Zia refused to come to the negotiating table, turning down each overture made by Hasina, including the opportunity to form an all-party cabinet.

For her part, Hasina opted not to postpone elections. And Jamaat-e-Islami continued on a path of destruction, burning buses full of commuters, isolating the city by felling trees on roads and cutting railway lines. Jamaat has shown itself to be capable of little more than terrorising the public. Although it, too, claims to be acting in the interests of a fair election, the party's anger has been fuelled by a war crimes trial that put in the dock 12 men accused of collaborating with the Pakistan army during the 1971 war of independence.

Elections in Bangladesh are usually festive affairs. People line up from the early hours to cast their vote, raising up their ink-stained thumbs in triumph. But Sunday's elections yielded no such satisfaction as 153 seats were won without contest – some polling centres seeing no voters at all. The sense of disappointment was palpable, the city eerily quiet, with reports coming in that Jamaat was on the rampage again, this time targeting schools that had been turned into polling centres. But the worst news came at the end of the day, when it emerged that 130 Hindu homes had been torched in Jessore district.

It is easy to say that both parties have irreparably damaged Bangladesh's nascent democratic institutions. But this would be a mistake. This government made a grave error in abolishing the caretaker administration, and allegations of corruption and cronyism have subsequently damaged its credibility. But the opposition has unleashed a campaign of violence that has undermined any claim it could have had to victimhood. Zia's insistence on maintaining close ties with Jamaat proves she is willing to do anything for power.

Like many of my fellow citizens, I feel robbed of my fundamental right to determine the fate of my country. The story is being written without me – and the millions of others who wait to make their small mark on history every five years. For a country that is pulling itself heroically out of poverty, combating overpopulation and climate disaster, this turn of events is a cruel blow indeed.

Soon after independence Kissinger called Bangladesh a basket case. We've spent the better part of four decades refuting that label, and doing a good job of it. Now we need our politicians to deliver on their most basic promises.

Tahmima Anam is a Bangladeshi writer. Her latest novel is The Good Muslim.

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