Despite the news-coverage drought attending it, last week’s election in Bangladesh brought two important indications of change for that “international basket case,” as Henry Kissinger once called it. One was for an imminent return to democracy, the other that President Zia ur Rahman may have what it takes to ease the country’s staggering economic and social problems.
Soon after independence eight years ago, the original democracy slid into dictatorship under the flamboyant and lackadaisical leadership of the assassinated (in 1975) Sheik Mujib Rahman. Now, after four years of martial law under Zia, it is almost back where it began. Zia still has not lifted restrictions (he promises to do so within a week after the new parliament meets next month), nor did he stand for election. But he was massively confirmed in office in a referendum last May, and in last week’s election his Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 203 of the 300 seats. The Awami League (Mujib’s old party) won 40, and a coalition of two fundamentalist Moslem parties was third with 19 seats.
The new House faces the herculean tasks of making the country self-suffi-
cient in food production and reducing the appalling birthrate that has crammed 82 million mostly illiterate people into an area only slightly larger than Nova Scotia and New Brunswick together. Since the 1971 civil war and the cyclones, famines and floods that followed, the country has been sustained by huge doles of international aid.
Some observers would see the election as a sign to the West that Bangladesh deserves to keep getting that aid. Zia has inspired confidence at home despite his hardheaded approach to political survical—he has jailed several thousand political opponents. In a land where the corruption and laggard pace of bureaucracy are as unfailing as the monsoon season, he has built a reputation for incorruptibility and for getting things done. He has even tackled the inefficiency of the civil service. Bureaucrats now get to their desks by 7:30 a.m.—instead of 10 a.m.
Certainly, the face of political respectability that Zia is giving the country will make it more attractive to foreign private investors—or so the president hopes. He has already begun to move Bangladesh toward self-sufficiency in food production, less reliance on aid and a healthier industrial setup. He has also promoted a family-planning campaign, though with more sensitivity than Sanjay Gandhi did in India. But agricultural development is the first priority—and for that, Zia is desperate for foreign capital. As one of his close advisers said recently: “For Bangladesh, stability is just the starting point.” Michael Clugston
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