Dr. Benkin’s serialized commentary is drawing huge attention of the readers at home and abroad for many reasons. International community is taking notes of this extensively investigative reporting for seeing the future of Bangladeshi politics, while some local dailies, mostly pro-radicals are trying to put bad names on Blitz for publishing such an aggressive article on rise of Islamist militancy in the country. A number of vernacular dailies in Dhaka have picked up information from the serialized item and tried to twist the entire story to their own tastes and commitments. But, one point has become clear from such attitude. Dr. Benkin has now been able to raise his finger to a very correct issue, which has so far been tactfully isolated from public attention, by many elements in Bangladesh. Here is the greatest success of any journalist indeed. We are proud to publish the serialized item by Richard Benkin and certainly it is one of the main objectives of Weekly Blitz to oppose Islamist militancy in this small but prospective country in South Asia. In his commentary, eminent political analyst Dr. Richard Benkin wrote: … The political conspiracy theories also fail to convince. It is hardly in the interests of any elected government to preside over a nation plagued by violence. Any lingering doubts about that should have been put to rest when Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia returned home and did not take the opportunity to declare a state of emergency—another underlying motive suggested by the opposition which, if true, would explain why the BNP would secretly abet the violence; but it did not happen. And thus far, nothing more than speculation has been advanced to support an AL conspiracy. But the violence does cast enough doubt on both parties to benefit another force.
While the various theories fall apart in whom they identify as the culprits, they do yield important insight in refusing to accept the riots as some sort of spontaneous uprising or an event that occurred without planning. Whether they point to India, China, the AL or BNP, the majority of the country seems to agree with one official who, as reported in Weekly Blitz said, “A vested quarter at home and abroad planned the ransacking of garment industries to create an anarchic situation.” Exactly which “vested quarter” with bases both in Bangladesh and abroad might that be? No one seems ready to utter that name, although all logic points to only one group: radical Islamists.
No one is pointing to the most obvious culprits and the only power sector with a track of de-stabilizing places like Bangladesh. In Iran, extensive social unrest preceded the Islamist victory. Islamist elements destroyed the centuries-old power sharing arrangements that made Lebanon a model of a stable and successful bi-religious state and gave Beirut the moniker, “Paris of the Middle East.” There might be little international agreement how to solve the Middle East conflict, but there is near unanimity that the chaos in Gaza enabled Islamist Hamas to build its power base there. The Muslim Brotherhood has been behind de-stabilizing efforts in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere. And today Islamist Iran proudly exports terror, as does its Lebanese lapdog, Hizbullah. On the other hand, India and China have been cooperating to maintain stability in South Asia, specifically in Nepal where both countries have been helping to fight Maoist rebels there.
So politically, who gains from Bangladesh’s recent labor unrest? Certainly, the AL does not, for they remain identified with labor unions and leftist coalitions that participated in the rioting. Neither does the violence help the BNP since it seems to reflect the ruling party’s inability to maintain the social order. But a third political force does gain when the two major parties are weakened. Moreover, when social unrest prevails, a party promising a “new order” and claiming to be an untainted alternative can catch the attention of voters who might fail to focus on that party’s darker intentions. Weimar Germany’s collapse paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis, but one need not go back that far. The same thing happened earlier this year in the Palestinian Authority elections. Voters chose to ignore Hamas’s anti-peace platform, choosing instead to grasp at what they hoped was a lifeline to save them from a corrupt and chaotic regime. Now that Islamist platform has impoverished those voters.
Bangladeshi Islamists—and neither of the major parties—satisfy those who point to domestic and foreign elements conspiring together. They are also the only political force in Bangladesh with a history of initiating violence among the people in support of their political goals. They proclaimed last year’s terror bombings to be undertaken to implement Sharia as the law of the land. If social unrest and violence erupts periodically from now until the January elections—the bombings of 2005, the recent labor violence, and one or two more episodes before the voting—they might achieve that goal with a showing strong enough for them to demand the Law Ministry and rule that no law can be implemented unless it conforms with Sharia.
The Islamists who murdered Bangladeshi jurists and others throughout Bangladesh last fall promised that the violence would continue if it suited their objectives. History has shown that it is best to take them at their word. For in country after country and now in Bangladesh, they have not scrupled about sacrificing innocent victims to advance their nefarious platform. It would be foolhardy not to consider first an Islamist conspiracy behind this month’s and any future social unrest between now and the election.
There are several important messages for the politicians in Bangladesh as well for world leaders in the serialized article by Richard Benkin. It is prime time for Dhaka’s politicians in particular to give proper importance to these facts and take immediate steps so that this country also does not go in the hands of fanatics and radicals.
Will Prodi pull a rabbit out of the hat?
Almost two months after Italians went to the polls in the most bitterly and closely fought general election in their country's post-War history, Prime Minister Romano Prodi, at the head of an unwieldy centre-left coalition that runs the gamut from centrist Roman Catholics to atheist communists, can finally get down to business.
A week ago, Mr. Prodi won his first major post-electoral test when his coalition trounced former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing alliance in mayoral elections in Italy's largest cities. More than 20 million voters were eligible to vote in the municipal polls in 1,267 communes and cities, as well as the administrations of eight provinces and the presidency of the island of Sicily.
Centre-left candidates romped home in symbolic centres of power such as Rome, Naples and Turin, ceding only Mr. Berlusconi's traditional stronghold of Milan, and that too by a fairly narrow margin. In Turin home to auto giant Fiat, Rocco Buttiglione, a fervent right-wing catholic who was forced out of his European Union Commissioner's job because of homophobic statements, was thrashed by the incumbent centre-left mayor.
"Excepting Milan, where the centre-right has won, the other cities, the more important ones, are all in our hands," a triumphant Mr. Prodi said. But the new Prime Minister had little time to savour his victory.
With zero growth in 2005, a national deficit of over 100 per cent of GDP and getting bigger, growing pressure from the European Commission and credit rating agencies such as Standards & Poor's and Fitch, Mr. Prodi must now take some tough decisions. Late last month, Fitch's top analyst Brian Coulton said Italy had been placed on "rating watch negative" and warned that the country's credit rating was likely to be downgraded in the next three to five months.
The next six months will therefore be crucial and will tell whether the Prodi Government will stand or "crumble like a house of cards" as predicted by Silvio Berlusconi. Mr. Prodi responded to the Fitch announcement saying he would shortly come up with a plan — some say it could take the form of a "mini budget" — to pull up the country's disastrous finances.
But will he be able to pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat? Most economic analysts are worried that there will be too many conflicting pulls and pushes and heaves within his fragile coalition for him to be able to act decisively. Mr. Prodi has never had the reputation of being a decisive leader. Critics at the EU headquarters in Brussels where he was the Commission's president describe him as "dithering and hesitant." Will he be able to show the right kind of leadership now?
In order to put its economic house in order, Mr. Prodi will have to cut the budget deficit by as much as 28 billion Euros or a full two per cent of GDP, if Italy has to come anywhere close to keeping its fiscal commitments to the EU. The bad news was announced by the governor of Italy's Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who said the earlier government "had frittered away the advantages" that came with belonging to the euro zone.
This places Mr. Prodi in a terrible bind. One of his campaign promises was to cut professional taxes by 5 per cent or almost 10 billion Euros in the very first year of his term so that Italian businesses could regain their competitive edge. But he had also promised to reverse legislation passed by Mr. Berlusconi that would push the retirement age to 60 in 2008 and to bring it back to 57. Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and pensions already cost the exchequer almost 16 per cent of GDP.
Can the Prime Minister really afford these handouts without getting further into debt? The only way he could plug the massive hole in the country's finances would be by making huge cuts in public spending. And although the new Premier has chosen his government wisely and well — the Finance, Foreign and Interior Ministers have impeccable credentials — his supporters are dreading the "Fausto Factor", named after Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communist party, who was responsible for bringing down the last Prodi Government in 1996.
Mr. Bertinotti and his allies are anti-liberal and anti-globalisation, resistant to changes in labour laws that would erode workers' rights and favour the vagaries of the marketplace. They have been fighting for the repeal of legislation passed by Mr. Berlusconi that allows employers to hire personnel on repeat short-term contracts rather than making them permanent employees. The biggest threats to Mr. Prodi's austerity plans could come from within his own coalition.
Nor has his main opponent, Silvio Berlusconi, had his final say. He has sworn to make life as difficult as possible for the country's new rulers. The media tycoon is still convinced that the election, which split the country into two and gave Mr. Prodi a razor-thin majority with just a two-seat lead in the Senate, was marked by fraud. It took him over a week to concede defeat after Italy's supreme electoral body confirmed the results.
He gave in with ill-grace, never calling his successor to congratulate him as is customary, vowing instead to bring down the government in the municipal elections that were to follow. That he has received a drubbing at the mayoral polls and that his leadership is now being questioned within his own right-wing alliance does not obscure the fact that Italy's richest man remains a formidable force with huge resources at his command. His Forza Italia is the single largest party in the country and Mr. Berlusconi is by far the dominant factor in his House of Freedoms coalition.
Rebuffed at the polls for the second time in two months, Mr. Berlusconi will now turn his sights to this month's referendum on greater devolution of powers to Italy's 20 regions — legislation which the Prodi Government has pledged to overturn. "We must send a strong signal to the government in the June 25 referendum," he told supporters recently.
The former Prime Minister is aware that he is fighting with his back to the wall. The new Government plans to overturn several of his most controversial laws, such as those that protected his vast distribution and construction empire and media holdings. Now that he no longer has immunity, a judge in Spain has reopened an enquiry into alleged fraud at a Spanish TV station owned by Mr. Berlusconi.
Recently, Cesare Previti, his close friend, lawyer and former Defence Minister saw his corruption sentence confirmed by an appellate court. But because of a law passed by Mr. Berlusconi that allows people over 70 to serve their term under house arrest, Mr. Previti will never go to prison. So the noose appears to be slowly tightening around Mr. Berlusconi.
There is no doubt that during Mr. Berlusconi's five-year reign, standards of probity in public life dropped dramatically. Mr. Prodi has vowed to usher in an era of honesty and integrity. In a speech before the Senate he referred to the match-fixing scandals that have rocked Italian football saying they were "an important metaphor for the situation in the country. Italy now faces an ethical crisis in many sectors, including politics, which has affected every aspect of life." One of Mr. Prodi's first foreign policy moves will be to define a strategy to bring home Italian troops sent to Iraq in the face of massive public opposition by his predecessor.
`Modern day Janus':
And yet despite all his troubles, Mr. Berlusconi is far from being a finished factor. "One cannot, absolutely cannot, write this man off. The election that split Italy into two was not the referendum against him that the Prodi camp had hoped for. Berlusconi is a modern day Janus. To the rich industrialists in northern Italy where prosperity is high and unemployment low he shows his ultra-liberal profile calling for market driven reforms and greater flexibility.
"To the people in the countryside, the small farmers, shopkeepers and businessmen, he shows his other face, saying `I was a little man like you. Trust me. I am not from the establishment'. He fascinates Italians with his energy, his exhibitionism, his excess. He makes them dream of making vast fortunes," says Marc Lazar, author of Italy Adrift and Director of Doctoral Studies at the French Institute of Political Science in Paris.
Another factor that must never be forgotten in any analysis of Italian politics, Professor Lazar says, is the fear of communism. "It is not by chance that Berlusconi harped so long and hard on the presence of communists in Prodi's coalition. For forty years, post-war Italy was governed by a four party coalition, put in place only to keep the communists out. And we know the anti-communist role played by the Vatican in a deeply religious country."
The bottom line of Mr. Berlusconi's message to his people, Professor Lazar says, was: take me as a role model and get rich quick. "It's a message that is perhaps not reassuring but which reflects the evolution of our democracies in the midst of globalization and change and the fears haunting them. In the face of such frightening changes, in these uncertain times, people tend to take refuge in the most egotistical, individual values." That is the tragedy of Italy today.