The 5 January election revealed the severity of Bangladesh’s prolonged economic and political crisis. The incumbent Awami League Party once again secured victory through a ballot which was seen by many as a mockery of an electoral process. More than half – 153 out of 300 seats – were not even contested. More than 120 polling stations were set ablaze and over 500 voting stations were forced to close on election day. At least 100 people were killed in the violence.
The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the election, as did a number of other parties. The BNP called for a boycott and strike when their demand for a so-called ‘caretaker’ government to run the election was dismissed. The turnout was just over 20% and widespread vote-rigging made nonsense of the ruling party’s claim of ‘legitimacy’. Even the Communications Minister, Obaidul Kader, admitted: “We can’t say it was a universally acceptable election”.
The opposition BNP called the election a ‘farce’ and ignited a violent boycott, but they themselves have no credible standing among workers and the poor in Bangladesh. Allegations of corruption exist against both leading capitalist parties. Bangladesh tops the list of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Tarique Rahman, BNP vice-chairman and son of BNP leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia, is said to be the second richest person in the country. His vast wealth is estimated at over $1.5 billion. The third richest person in Bangladesh is Sajeeb Wazed Joy, son of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. His wealth goes beyond $1 billion.
In the last five years of power the growth in the wealth of the leaders of the Awami League Party has been manifold. The Wall Street Journal reported that the affidavits and tax statements [submitted to the election commission] show that at least 48 candidates who have served in important positions have seen a 582% rise in income on average!
To say that the enormous wealth of these political leaders stands in stark contrast to the rest of the population would be putting it mildly. A glimpse of the miserable conditions in which Bangladeshi workers are forced to work was revealed through the horrendous accident of April last year. Tragically, 1,127 workers perished when the Rana Plaza building, which was one massive sweat-shop, collapsed. The 4,000 workers crammed into that place had to toil long hours in atrocious conditions – nowhere to sit, no adequate toilet facilities or clean drinking water. They were being constantly bullied to work faster and faster for 11 to 15 hours a day.
Over 3.2 million workers are subjected to such horrific conditions for the horrendous insult of an average wage of £24 a month. Nearly 40% of the densely housed population of 150 million people live below the poverty line, struggling for survival on less than $2 a day.
Billionaire ruling families
While the living standards of workers are deteriorating, the battle between the billionaire families of Sheikh Hasina, and Khaleda Zia to control the state apparatus has been vicious. In 2013 alone over 500 people died in the clashes between the BNP and the Awami League.
Sheikh Hasina accuses the BNP of linking up with terrorists i.e. the Jamaat-e-Islami, a reactionary Islamic party. The BNP formed an alliance with them from 2001 to strengthen its base among the poor. To this day Jamaat acts as a mobilising agent for the BNP. It stands accused of political killings, corruption, attacks against Hindu minorities, etc. It also has a long history of violence against the left, radical activists and workers. Many of its leaders are accused of committing war crimes during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. Its key leader, Abdul Quader Molla, known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, was sentenced to death for genocide, rape and abduction and hanged on 12 December 2013. Among others, the vice-president of Jamaat, Delwar Hossain Sayedee was also sentenced to death for similar heinous crimes. He participated in the creation of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and has been a regular guest at the East London Mosque in the UK. Despite the attempt by Jamaat to provoke violent protest against these decisions, significant sections of the population in Bangladesh and in Britain were outraged by the details that emerged. Jamaat’s hold on the poor population is now being challenged.
The ruling Awami League used this propaganda to ban Jamaat-e-Islami in August last year. This weakened the BNP significantly. Jamaat was accused of organising the worst violence in Bangladesh’s history during the election – further contributing to the low turnout. Many lives were lost in the equally horrible retaliation by the Awami League-led thugs, police and military. The BNP is using this to portray themselves as defenders of ‘democracy’. Jamaat also portrays itself as ‘true defenders of democracy’.
Deals bring no relief to poor
It is likely that the BNP will continue to provoke violent actions against the current government. Phone calls between Hasina and Khaleda Zia to achieve ‘peace’ were broadcast on television. But this attempt at a PR stunt was a failure and resulted in new outbursts of violence across the country. Even if they manage a ‘truce’ of their gang war in the interest of big business, it will result in zero gains for the workers and poor of Bangladesh.
Previously the BNP demagogically called for a general strike to punish the current government and to make political gains during the election. But they have no desire to do so to advance any workers’ conditions or rights. This is unlikely to help the BNP to build its support among workers.
The majority of the workers and poor masses do not support the right wing policies of capitalist parties. Despite the violence and intimidation, however, industrial action demanding workers’ rights has seen a significant increase. In 2010, textile workers organised a historic strike, demanding an increase in wages which had not improved since 2006. This strike won a pay rise. Textiles are an important sector that contributes 80% of the country’s export revenue. Bangladesh remains the largest exporter of clothing in the world – the industry is worth over $25 billion.
In the eight-day strike that followed the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, the workers again demonstrated the utmost courage and defiance. Last month mounting anger was shown in the garment-workers’ strike in which over 50,000 workers participated – again demanding a wage increase.
No political voice for workers
The seeming exponential increase of the wealth of the political elite is common knowledge. But now workers are beginning to demand their share and showing their anger. Unfortunately there is no political vehicle that the workers can turn to combat the billionaires’ parties.
The Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) boycotted the election with the argument that there was no hope in the election. However, the CPB tends to lean towards the Awami League with the argument of ’lesser evilism’. They have still not fully recovered from the huge ideological and organisational setback inflicted by the collapse of Stalinism. They model themselves on the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) – two parties who always come to the rescue of the pro-capitalist Congress Party in the interests of opposing the ‘fascist’ BJP or in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’. They are further imprisoned in their adherence to the failed ’stagist’ approach which bars them from taking the building of a genuine left alternative further.
Unable to handle the political mayhem of the last few years, the Socialist Party of Bangladesh (SPB) is also undergoing its worst crisis, with splits and fragmentation. They also boycotted the election with similar arguments to the CPB. The leaders of the SPB continue to fail to develop a correct perspective to lead the emerging struggle. Though they claim to stand for left unity and the building of a left platform for struggle, there is no genuine attempt made to implement this. The leaders of the SPB are also plagued by old discredited Stalinist methods. The many young workers and students who joined the SPB in recent years have been demoralised and no longer have any faith in the leadership.
Corruption among trade union leaders and their collusion with both bourgeois parties, and bosses will further weaken the morale of those who want to struggle.
The options available to those forced by their conditions to struggle are utterly unsatisfactory. In particular, the 55-million strong youth population (those under the age of 20) can see no future. They will almost certainly enter the struggle at some stage. It is therefore vital that workers and young people, who have already shown their willingness and determination to struggle, join forces to build a new alternative. The form, therefore, that the new political alternative takes is a vital question.
A new formation must be capable of winning the trust of the wider workers and poor masses, especially by being part and parcel of their struggles. It must also have the ability to understand the social, economic and political conjuncture in Bangladesh, the region and the world in order to then put forward a clear perspective for struggle.
A new formation must also be based around a programme that can draw in all the progressive sections of society and give them confidence to engage in struggle and the political process. Without building such a force the working, young and poor masses are condemned to be used as cannon fodder by the rotten capitalist parties in their scramble for ever more obscenely vast quantities of wealth.
The programme should include:
• An immediate end to violence and fraudulent elections
• All democratic rights, including the right to assembly, the right to strike, etc
• The right to form a union and other workers’ rights
• A decent minimum wage for all workers
• The setting up of a constituent assembly with representatives democratically elected from every part of society
• For a government of workers and peasants. For the nationalisation of the garment and other industries under democratic workers’ control and management
• For a socialist plan of production under the control of elected workers’ and poor farmers’ representatives geared to the interests of the overwhelming majority of people.
TU Senan, CWI