A Poor Country Finds Hope In a New Woman Leader

Sheikh Wajed becomes Bangladesh's prime minister, perhaps bringing political stability and economic growth

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After more than two years of political and economic turmoil, Bangladesh has taken its first tentative steps towards normalcy with the swearing-in yesterday of a new government headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed's Awami League party.

The Awami League is returning to power 21 years after its leader, Prime Minister Wajed's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed in a military coup that set the pattern for a decade and a half of Army rule in one of the world's poorest countries.

Despite falling just short of an outright majority in Parliament, Ms. Wajed says she believes she has a firm mandate to rule after the June 12 general election, widely considered to be the freest and fairest in the country's turbulent 25-year history.

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As indicated by a high - 73 percent - voter turnout and the strong support for the Awami League, Wajed has raised enormous hopes that political stability and economic growth will soon return to this impoverished nation of 120 million people.

The Awami League won 146 out of 300 elective seats in Parliament, and has been promised the support of the Jatiya Party of imprisoned dictator Gen. Mohammad Hussain Ershad, with 31 seats, to ensure a majority.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia won 116 seats, but is disputing the results of a further 111 constituencies. The election, held under a neutral caretaker administration and overseen by more than 160 international observers, resulted in the record turnout.

Forced into politics following her father's assassination, Wajed must now muster all the political skills gained while leading the opposition from 1991 to 1996 to tackle the daunting tasks before her new government.

Months of strikes and demonstrations have paralyzed the country's fragile economy, the Army has grown restive and last month staged an abortive coup, and the people's faith in democracy has been shaken by the drawn-out political drama.

"The top-most priorities must be to restore law and order and tackle the economy," says Maksud Khan, former president of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce. "We need stability and a continuity of policies. The political crisis has caused damage to many sectors of the economy and has affected investment."

Investor confidence in Bangladesh, particularly in the important garment industry, was badly hit by a campaign of strikes and demonstrations earlier this year demanding the resignation of the Zia government.

During the election campaign, Wajed maintained her party had jettisoned the socialist principles of the past and was now committed to encouraging a free-market economy. She also promised to free business from government control and devote more resources to the agricultural sector.

But the new prime minister realizes that to strengthen the country's economy she needs to begin a process of reconciliation with Mrs. Zia's BNP party, which is still smarting from its defeat at the polls. "We will heal the wounds, not create new ones; unite the nation, not divide it," Wajed said after her victory.

The next priority for the government will be to address dissatisfaction within the armed forces over the dismissal of Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Abu Saleh Mohammad Nasim, by President Abdur Rahman Biswas, following a failed coup just three weeks before the election.

Although the Army remains a potent force in Bangladesh's politics, most observers discount the possibility of a return to military rule. "In the past people acquiesced when the military took power, now they would resist," says Boranuddin Ahmed, author of "The Army in Pakistan and Bangladesh."

"The first thing Hasina should do is appoint a new chief of staff, someone who would be truly independent," he says.

Serajul Islam Chowdhury of Dhaka University agrees. "Military coups are not popular and the generals have found out that although it is easy to get in, it is very difficult to get out. They usually get killed or end up in prison."

Watching the outcome of the elections closely is the new Indian government. According to Farooq Sobhan, Bangladesh's foreign secretary, the political changes in New Delhi and Dhaka could lead a new era of regional cooperation.

But Wajed will have to tread warily in her dealings with New Delhi because of the deep suspicion many Bangladesh's feel towards their giant neighbor.

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