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Bangladesh Nobel laureate's political quest sparks debate

The Nagarik Shakti group set up by Muhammad Yunus would contest all 300 constituencies in the next parliamentary elections.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2007 12:59 IST

The launch of a political party by Bangladesh's Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has taken most politicians by surprise but is being welcomed by ordinary citizens desperate for change.

Yunus on Sunday named his party ahead of a formal launch, saying the Nagarik Shakti (citizens' power) group would contest all 300 constituencies in the next parliamentary elections, for which no date has yet been set.

"Now I think Bangladesh will have a chance to choose between good and bad and eventually have a good government," said Shahedul Islam, a government official.

"That government, we hope, would not only keep itself away from corruption but also make fighting corruption and black money a top priority."

Yunus sparked an outpouring of joy and national pride among Bangladeshis from all walks of life last year when he was awarded the Peace Prize for a micro-finance scheme that earned him the nickname "banker to the poor".

But his political venture has triggered mixed reactions from major political parties that have dominated the south Asian country for decades.

"Yunus is a childhood friend of mine," said former foreign minister M Morshed Khan, a senior leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by immediate past prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia.

"There was no debate (over him) winning the Nobel, but politics is different -- very challenging and often controversial.

"I don't really want my friend to become a subject of debate."

Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League and a former prime minister herself, had already expressed her displeasure over Yunus joing politics when he hinted at it last week.

"Newcomers in politics are dangerous elements and are to be viewed with suspicion," Hasina told her followers. "They often do more harm to the nation than good."

While most Bangladeshis welcomed Yunus's venture, many also asked why he was rushing into politics?

"Is he being planted in politics by mentors from outside the country," asked one political observer, who asked not to be named. Others said the United States and India were possibly backing Yunus.

Whatever the view, the debate is in full voice at tea stalls, street corners, universities and offices across the country.

Some teachers and students at Dhaka University, the country's biggest and a political hotbed that is heavily influenced by the leading parties, have threatened to boycott a ceremony if Yunus was invited as the main speaker.

Yunus has remained enigmatically unruffled.

"I am not worried about who is saying what about me," he told reporters on Sunday.

Elections were supposed to take place on Jan. 22, but were postponed indefinitely by the interim government while a major reorganisation of the Election Commision and voters rolls takes place.

First Published: Feb 19, 2007 12:59 IST