SATOSHI IWAKI, Nikkei staff writer : –
NEW DELHI — A decades-long vendetta between two leading political figures could spiral out of control and damage Bangladesh’s fragile democracy. If law and order break down, the country’s textile industry may grind to a halt, sending shock waves through the global apparel market.
Bangladesh, known as the world’s garment factory, is integral to the global economy. The country is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China. Its real gross domestic product grew 6.1% in the fiscal year ended June 2014. Growth is expected to remain above 6% in the current fiscal year.
Spiraling political confrontation could severely affect production in Bangladesh.
Trouble at the top
Since 1991, the South Asian country has been ruled by two women engaged in a fierce struggle for power.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leads the Bangladesh Awami League, which helped lead the fight for independence from Pakistan and formed the first government with the assistance of its neighbor India. Because of this history, Awami League is seen as pro-India and socialist.
Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party is center-right and taps deeply rooted anti-Indian sentiment.
The recent escalation in the political battle between Hasina and Zia began Feb. 25, when a special anti-corruption court issued an arrest warrant for the opposition leader over her alleged involvement in siphoning funds from a charitable trust. It was reported that Zia was ordered to present herself at the court on that date, but refused to appear, citing fears for her safety. If found guilty, she could be given a life sentence, which would spark street protests.
Bound to the nation
The root of the two leaders’ enmity dates back to the 1970s. Hasina is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president, assassinated in a military coup in 1975. Zia was the wife of Ziaur Rahman, who came to power through the coup, later becoming president. He was assassinated in a military coup in 1981.
Hasina and Zia found themselves drawn into the world of politics after losing close family members. For them, winning national elections and governing the country is a sort of vengeance for the death of their loved ones. Hasina’s animosity toward Zia runs particularly deep, as she sees her political rival as a personal enemy due to the fact Zia’s husband led the coup in which her father was killed.
The 1991 election win by the Nationalists made Zia Bangladesh’s first female prime minister. Mounting general labor strikes, the Awami League beat its rival in a 1996 national election, and Hasina became leader of the country. The Nationalists, and Zia, were back after a landslide victory in 2001. Ensuing political instability saw the military once again take control of the country. Following the reintroduction of democratic rule in 2009, Hasina returned as prime minister.
After roughly a quarter of a century of political rivalry, Hasina appears to be aiming to end Zia’s political career once and for all. Animosity between the two worsened after the Nationalists and other major opposition parties boycotted an election in January last year. With little opposition, Hasina’s Awami League won an overwhelming victory.
The boycott of the election by major opposition parties caused the international community to question the legitimacy of the poll.
Zia called for a fresh election, insisting on the illegitimacy of the current government. The opposition leader has been effectively under house arrest since earlier this year. Hasina accused Zia of plotting to create anarchy.
Some companies are already having trouble shipping finished products, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Overall output this year in the garment industry is down 15% from levels seen over the past few years. One reason for this is that staff, fearing for their safety, often stay home. Foreign apparel companies have seen some deliveries delayed.
The worst case scenario for Bangladesh is another coup. If the military decides to intervene to end the current political chaos, it would tarnish Bangladesh’s standing as a democratic nation.
“The most important thing for this country is the garment industry,” said a high-ranking official from an industry organization. “Our high productivity and active foreign investment are only possible if we have political stability. Why don’t those two queens understand this?” the official lamented.