Elections in jeopardy as Bangladesh parties head for showdown

Bangladeshi garments workers demanding an increase in the monthly minimum pay during a protest in front of the national press club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in this Sept. 4, 2013 file photo. Mounting tension between Bangladesh's two main political partie
Bangladeshi garments workers demanding an increase in the monthly minimum pay during a protest in front of the national press club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in this Sept. 4, 2013 file photo. Mounting tension between Bangladesh's two main political parties is a fresh threat to a US$22 billion (S$27 billion) garment export industry, the economic lifeblood of the poor country of 160 million, which has already been rocked by a string of deadly factory accidents over the past year. -- PHOTO: AP

DHAKA (REUTERS) - Bangladesh's two main parties are hurtling towards a showdown this week that could delay or even derail elections due by January in a country with a history of ferocious political violence and military intervention.

The mounting tension is a fresh threat to Bangladesh's US$22 billion (S$27 billion) garment export industry, the economic lifeblood of the poor country of 160 million, which has already been rocked by a string of deadly factory accidents over the past year.

The ruling Awami League in 2011 scrapped a "caretaker government" system - whereby neutral leaders take over three months before elections and oversee polls - and is now refusing to step down by Oct 24, as would have ordinarily happened. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says that, unless the government relinquishes power, its supporters will whip up nationwide strikes that are likely to be bloody. It is also threatening to boycott the elections.

"There will be a total deadlock," Mr Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP's acting secretary-general, told Reuters. "When the government does not listen to our demands, what is the alternative?" The deadlock raises the spectre of aborted polls in 2007, when a League boycott and clashes between rival party supporters led a military-backed government to take over for two years.

Even if the polls go ahead, the opposition might reject the results, which could spark more strikes and force a second election within months, as happened in 1996.

Last week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought to defuse the crisis, offering the formation of an all-party government to see through the elections.

While the BNP is likely to snub her proposal, Mr Alamgir held out the prospect of a negotiated end to the impasse. Still, the BNP has vowed to press ahead with a rally in Dhaka this Friday, for which one party leader has exhorted supporters to come"prepared with arms".

The League plans to hold a competing rally on the same day, raising the risk of more bloodshed, said Mirza Hassan, a political scientist at Brac University.

Factory bosses say some Western retailers that source apparel from the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China have put orders on hold to see how the standoff unfolds.

Bangladesh's loss could benefit rival exporters Vietnam and Cambodia, even though they are more costly.

Garment orders placed at an annual trade fair in Dhaka this month fell by 5 per cent from last October, before a factory blaze and the collapse of Rana Plaza, a building that housed garment workshops, which together killed more than 1,200 people.