Battered Bangladesh sees some hope in vote results
DHAKA (Reuters) - A landmark election has swept former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina back to power, and analysts say she just may have a chance to move the country beyond its turbulent past and tackle its many problems.
The election ended two years of rule by a military-backed "interim authority" that took power in the midst of politically related violence and cancelled an election due in January 2007.
Street protests and strikes by political parties -- including Hasina's own Awami League -- which disrupt government and deter investors are among many historic problems for Bangladesh.
Some 45 percent of its largely rural and agrarian population of 140 million people fall below the poverty line, and its low-lying terrain on the Indian Ocean coast makes it a prime target for natural disasters such as floods and cyclones.
Add to the mix widespread government and private graft, and a military not hesitant to intervene when it thinks things are going wrong, and Hasina will face a range of towering challenges when she takes office in early January.
However, an unprecedented landslide election win for her Awami League and its allies, who together bagged 263 of 298 seats declared so far from a total of 300, put Hasina in a stronger position than past governments, analysts say.
In addition, independent monitoring groups and many Bangladeshis say she has something past prime ministers have generally lacked -- a mandate from a fair and credible election.
That view contradicts the claim of ex-Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party that the results were rigged, and could undercut attempts at mass protests like those from 1991 through 2006, when she and Hasina alternated in power.
So could Hasina's magnanimous gestures at her first post-election news conference Wednesday.
Although Khaleda's alliance had won just 31 seats as of the latest counting, Hasina said she was prepared to offer the opposition some senior parliamentary and ministerial positions, adding she wanted to work with all sides to establish a new political culture.
"As winners, we have to deal with everything with a sense of forgiveness and accommodation instead of vengeance, to take the country forward," Hasina said.
Whether Khaleda, her party and allies will agree and refrain from taking to the streets is a big concern.
"Now is the time to see if they change," Bangladesh Political Science Association chairman Ataur Rahman told Reuters.
Many remain pessimistic, or at least take a wait-and-see attitude, especially given Bangladesh's history of political confrontations, violence and often dysfunctional parliaments.
RIGHT TRACK, BUT...
"We have put the country on the right track, but if it moves forward remains to be seen," said a senior official of the outgoing interim government, who declined to be identified.
One Hasina promise that may prove more easily made than kept is to cut food prices, which rose sharply when Khaleda was last in office from 2001 through 2006, and worsened since.
Economic growth and attracting investment will require more power plants and tapping energy resources like natural gas. There is a need for a continued flow of foreign aid, not to mention better healthcare and education in a country with a relatively short life expectancy and massive illiteracy.
The public has shown limited patience with past governments and some are not prepared to cut Hasina much slack this time.
"We have seen both Hasina and Khaleda take turns in power ... We don't want them to keep us waiting," Sohel Ahmed, a Dhaka University graduate, told Reuters. "I need a job to support myself and my family. (The government) should arrange it."
A growing and sometimes violent Islamic militancy is another issue, one that concerns neighbour and major trade partner India. It fears Bangladesh militants may shelter and support others.
Hasina said Wednesday she would "never allow use of Bangladesh soil ... by militants, especially not to assail India" and would work with neighbours "to set up a South Asian task force to fight them together."
Dhaka University development studies professor Atiur Rahman (no relation to Ataur) said Hasina also needs to keep the military from interfering in politics and governance, and address the country's war crime issues.
"Initiating trials of those who opposed independence of former East Pakistan or helped the Pakistani army in committing genocide is a growingly popular demand," he told Reuters.
Although dating back to Bangladesh's 1971 independence war with Pakistan, the issue was a major election topic and one where Hasina's perceived harder line helped her win.
Dealing with that and all Bangladesh's other problems will not be easy, analysts say, but with a practical approach that avoids the past's confrontational politics Hasina may manage.
"I strongly believe the new prime minister will overcome all or most of her challenges through pragmatic steps" and by noting past mistakes "to avoid them happening again," college administrator and political analyst Liaqat Sheikh told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Islam Quadir; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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