Bangladesh has issued an arrest warrant for ex-PM Khaleda Zia, the latest move in a power struggle between the opposition and the government. EU Parliamentarian Josef Weidenholzer tells DW he sees no easy way out.
A Bangladeshi court issued an arrest warrant on Wednesday, February 25, for former prime minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, an action which is likely to intensify anti-government protests which have already killed more than 100 people since the beginning of the year.
The latest episode of political volatility began on January 3 when police banned protests in the capital Dhaka and confined the leader of the country's main opposition party BNP, Khaleda Zia, to her office.
Zia had earlier called on activists to take to the streets to mark what the opposition dubbed "Democracy Killing Day" on January 5, the first anniversary of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's disputed re-election last year, which the opposition BNP boycotted claiming the vote would be rigged.
A special anti-corruption court issued the warrant after declining Zia's lawyers' plea for more time concerning her two graft cases. The warrants follow a visit by the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights to the South Asian Nation. Josef Weidenholzer, an MP from Austria, was part of the delegation which held talks with both the government and the opposition.
In a DW interview, Weidenholzer says Bangladesh's two main parties seem far from compromise, but adds there are still good conditions for the country to move in a positive direction.
DW: How do you see the situation in Bangladesh following your recent visit to the country?
Josef Weidenholzer: There is not much evidence of conflict on the streets. However, if you talk to people with differing opinions - from government representatives to journalists - then you notice the gravity of the conflict.
After talking to both sides, one can sense that there is no margin for reconciliation between the parties as none of the sides seem willing to give in. We were shown videos by both the government and opposition which showed the other side's alleged involvement in the deadly attacks. The situation seems hopeless and I am very concerned.
Are there any signs the situation could soon improve?
Compared to other countries, I see many positive aspects in Bangladesh. The economy is running well. Furthermore, there is increased awareness about the corruption and human rights violations that are taking place in the country. Overall, there are good conditions for the country to move in a positive direction.
But the established elites are a hindrance to development. My impression was that the country's top two leaders are responsible for the current irreconcilable situation.
What measures could help ease political tensions?
The country needs a comprehensive concept. It would be important to have an inclusive, participatory and democratic approach which allows people to participate in the elections. I believe only then will the country be able to overcome the crisis anytime soon.
It was interesting for me to note that during my visit, both of the parties involved in the conflict kept referring to past events, instead of answering questions about the future. The entire party system suffers from the dispute between these two great women who seem prisoners of their own past given their family histories. Potential new elections would need to bring in new faces and new people. Only then may things begin to change.
Europe has now entered the scene as a possible mediator between the rival parties in Bangladesh. Is Europe up to the task?
Bangladesh does not necessarily need a mediator, but I believe the country needs a push from outside. Otherwise it won't get off the ground. The EU has an important position since the bloc is the largest trade partner for Bangladesh.
Furthermore, the EU has a positive tradition of overcoming conflicts. In this respect, we would certainly be an appropriate choice for such a reconciliation process. Of course, the initiative would have to come from Bangladesh.
One focus of your trip was human rights, especially given the poor working conditions in the textile industry. Did you notice any improvements during your stay in the country?
We could already see that much has happened, especially with respect to safety regulations such as fire, electricity, and building security. Some factories were also closed.
However, it is somewhat more difficult when it comes to wages. They have indeed increased in recent years, but collective bargaining and salary negotiations are not going well. There are good intentions, but it is rarely the case that unions get directly involved in negotiations with the factory management.
Generally, I have the impression that the tragedy in Rana Plaza has caused Bangladeshis to rethink their approach. Many owners are aware they cannot survive on the European market if they do not offer fair working conditions to their employees.
Josef Weidenholzer is a member of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights.