No competitive politics left in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh has turned into a “one-party” state as the ruling party stamps out political competition, Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer of the global microcredit movement, said in an interview.

An election in January won Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a fourth straight term, but it was boycotted by the main opposition party, whose top leaders were either jailed or in exile ahead of the polls.

Prof Yunus, who helped to lift millions from poverty by providing tiny loans of sums less than $100 to the rural poor, angered Hasina with a 2007 plan to set up a political party.

The 2006 Nobel laureate accused the ruling Awami League of being involved in corruption, saying Bangladesh lacked a genuine political opposition.

“Bangladesh doesn’t have any politics left,” Prof Yunus, 83, said last week in his office in Dhaka. “There’s only one party which is active and occupies everything, does everything, gets to the elections in their way.

“They get their people elected in many different forms — proper candidates, dummy candidates, independent candidates — but all from the same party,” he added.

However, Law Minister Anisul Huq said he completely disagreed with Prof Yunus’ comments.

“It’s not only I who disagree, but the people of the country will also disagree,” he told Reuters by telephone, calling the remarks an “insult” to the people of the country.

“Democracy is fully functional in this country,” he added.

Prof Yunus, an economist who won the Nobel for his work on microcredit, was forced out of Grameen Bank in 2011 by Hasina’s government, which said he had stayed on past the legal retirement age of 60.

As Bangladesh’s longest-serving prime minister, Hasina has been credited with turning around the economy, though critics have also accused her of human rights violations and suppression of dissent.

The US State Department said January’s elections were not free and fair while the British government’s foreign office also condemned acts of “intimidation and violence”.

At the time, the main opposition BNP denounced the exercise as a “sham” election, calling for its cancellation, Hasina’s resignation and the formation of a non-party neutral government to hold a fresh one.

Just before the election, a court in Bangladesh had sentenced Prof Yunus to six months in prison for violations of labour law, which he denied.

Although he is not in prison after securing bail in that case, Prof Yunus faces more than 100 cases regarding the violations and graft accusations, which he dismissed as “very flimsy, made-up stories”.

Huq denied the accusations against Prof Yunus were false, however, adding, “He has gone to the highest court of the country, which found there was a case against him.”

As an example, Huq cited taxes paid by Prof Yunus after the Supreme Court ruled against him in a tax-evasion case, but declined comment on others as being sub-judice.

Prof Yunus’ supporters say Hasina’s government has sought to discredit him because he once considered setting up the political party, called “Citizens’ Power”.

Hasina, who denies the contention, called Prof Yunus a “bloodsucker” of the poor in 2011.

“Is it a crime for a citizen to try to make a political party?” Prof Yunus asked, saying he dropped the idea of such a party after just 10 weeks, on realising that he was not suited to politics.

Reviving a competitive political landscape in Bangladesh will be difficult, Prof Yunus said.

“Restarting will be very painful because we have brought it to a point where it has completely disappeared.”

LondonGBDESK//

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