Businessmen in Bangladesh who heaved a sigh of relief as voting finished on Sunday in the 10th parliamentary are on tenterhooks again.
This story first appeared in the January 8, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The election took place amid considerable violence — more than 100 polling locations set up in schools were vandalized, police officials told WWD — and even before the election results came in late Monday, it was clear that the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, would be the winner. Out of 300 parliamentary seats that were being contested, 153 were already won before the election, uncontested, as the 18-party opposition alliance decided not to participate in the elections.
Disapproval of the election and the way it was held has been expressed by several countries, including a statement by the U.S. State Department.
The situation after the election remains tense, and business owners are concerned as the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia, set another citywide shutdown, for 72 hours, until Wednesday.
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After the alarming violence leading up to election day on Sunday — with more than 21 deaths on that day alone, according to local media reports — the situation may remain challenging for the apparel industry, which has reported a decline in production and exports over the last month.
“We are at the end of our ability to absorb shocks,” Fazlul Hoque, former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told WWD. “Even today clashes are taking place and the blockade is still on. It’s just not good for business. If it continues like this even for another month, it will make a big dent in the garment industry.”
The next two weeks will be crucial in determining which way the country — and the industry — are headed, he said.
The present situation is an alarming reflection of a previous time — in 1996, the election held by the then-ruling BNP was boycotted by the Awami League, which was in the opposition at that time, and the government had to set a second election within six weeks of apparent victory. Complicating the situation this time are the war-crime trials being conducted by the Awami League that have been indicting those involved in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, as well as the fact that a caretaker government was not formed for the elections as the opposition demanded.
A stable political situation has become the latest challenge for Bangladesh to remain the world’s second-largest exporter of garments, which, at $22 billion, is a mainstay of the economy.
“We don’t know how it will pan out,” Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, told WWD. “The election has ensured democratic continuity, but now it all depends on how the conversation between the two sides goes. It has serious implications for the economy if this doesn’t happen quickly.
“Either side has to take on a more compromising manner at this time,” he added.
Among the concerns that Rahman listed for the economy are that investment has gone down, outstanding loans have continued to rise and the cost of living has gone up. The results will really show up later in the fiscal year, he said.
Many business owners in Dhaka said it doesn’t matter which government comes to power; they all understand the importance of the garment industry.
As Hoque pointed out, the power of negotiation can settle the issue. “If this scenario continues then our buyers will begin to lose confidence, if not then we can safely take orders,” he said.