FOR a while this week, Dhaka, one of the worldâ€™s most densely populated cities, seemed no more crowded than a mid-sized Swiss town. On November 12th, two weeks after a caretaker government took over from a coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition, the Awami League, decided that it had failed â€œto prove its neutrality.â€ For four days it enforced a strike that brought the capital to a virtual standstill.
On the evening of November 15th, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Leagueâ€™s leader, suspended the strike until November 20th. But the League threatened that the blockade would resume unless the interim government met its many demands. The most important is for the removal of the chief election commissioner, M.A. Aziz. The interim administration has to oversee elections in January. The opposition fears that the BNP, with the help of a partisan president, who also heads the interim administration, will rig the polls.
It has shown that it is capable of shutting the country down. Businesses, shops and petrol pumps were closed. International trade was disrupted, notably imports of materials for the garment industry. The currency, the taka, plummeted. Negotiators representing Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who is keen to invest $330mâ€”equivalent to about 10% of Bangladeshâ€™s foreign reservesâ€”in a state-owned bank, left the country.
The economy, growing at about 6% a year, has so far defied political turmoil and the repeated use of the hartalâ€”or strike. But its resilience may soon be tested by renewed disruption. The Leagueâ€™s strategy is risky. The price rises caused by the strike antagonise the poor. Sheikh Hasina cited their plight when she called it off.
A resolution to the political impasse, however, seems nowhere in sight. The BNP and its allied Islamist parties say that Mr Azizâ€™s is a constitutional post, so he has to resign of his own volition. Yet he bluntly refuses to quit, despite his apparent unpopularity. This week opposition supporters burned him in effigy. Shopkeepers announced that they would not sell goods to Mr Aziz or his family because his unwillingness to go was hurting business.
The opposition has tied its fate to the removal of Mr Aziz. For its supporters he has become the symbol of the interim governmentâ€™s partiality. It is doubtful whether a replacement could make much difference in practical terms. But his removal would be a moral victory for the League in a long election campaign that has turned ugly before it has even begun.
On November 12th the president, Iajuddin Ahmed, decided to deploy the army in an attempt to maintain law and order, without even informing his advisers. The order was rescinded the same evening, but even BNP appointees on the panel now criticise the presidentâ€™s style.
Three days earlier Mr Ahmed told the countryâ€™s top civil servants that the administration had become a â€œpresidential form of governmentâ€. Mr Ahmed later retracted the comment. But it has left many asking whether a president who so casually talks about changing Bangladeshâ€™s constitutional arrangements is the right man to oversee parliamentary elections.
Hasni Essa/Peace & Pluralism