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DHAKA—The disappearance of a leading opposition figure in Bangladesh has plunged the poor South Asian nation into a political crisis and threatens efforts to turn around its global image as a "basket case," as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once famously put it.
On Tuesday, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party called supporters into the streets for the third straight day of strikes to protest the disappearance last week of Ilyas Ali, a party member from the northeastern city of Sylhet.
At least five people have been killed and scores of protesters and security officials injured in Sylhet and Dhaka, the capital, over the past week as tens of thousands joined demonstrations.
Dhaka ground to a halt as people stayed in their homes Tuesday. Shops remained closed and thousands of security personnel fanned out across the city of 12 million.
Mr. Ali's car was discovered near his Dhaka home on April 17 with its lights on and doors open. He and his driver are missing.
BNP officials have accused Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government and its security forces of involvement in the abduction of the 51-year-old party official, who is a rising star in the opposition. The government denies the BNP allegations, and the party has provided no evidence to back up its charge.
"No government agency is holding Ilyas Ali," said State Minister for Home Affairs Shamsul Haque Tuku. "We're trying our best to find him. It seems the BNP is out to create anarchy."
The BNP also complains the government last year scrapped a system of handing power to a caretaker government before elections, which it says means that polls due in early 2014 are unlikely to be fair. The government says it was just implementing a Supreme Court ruling.
Ms. Hasina, who came to power in 2009, has won praise from the U.S. and India in recent years for cracking down on Islamist militants and—until recently—has presided over a resurgent economy, powered by textile exports.
The country's economy has been growing at 7% for the past few years, as textile factories relocated here from China. Textile exports were $18 billion last year, double the figure in 2006.
The International Monetary Fund estimates growth will slow to 5.5% in the year to June 30, an insufficient rate to create enough new jobs for a young work force. Bangladesh signed up for a $1 billion IMF credit line this month amid a mounting trade deficit caused by a rocketing oil-import bill.
The clouded economic picture, coupled with the return of violence, shows that Bangladesh may be slipping back toward instability.
"We cannot afford this," said Akbar Ali Khan, a prominent economist and former civil servant. "After this government took power in 2009, we had hopes of a qualitative change in our politics. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Political violence and misguided policies are destroying the country."
Ms. Hasina's government is facing a rising tide of criticism for what many here and abroad view as increasingly authoritarian policies, including harassment of nongovernmental workers and journalists.
Earlier this month, Aminul Islam, a labor activist, was found dead outside Dhaka, his body bearing marks of torture. Mr. Islam was facing trial for his role in labor protests last year. New York-based Human Rights Watch, calling for an impartial investigation of his death, said the state's charges against him were trumped up to dissuade other labor activists from pushing for higher minimum wages—allegations the government denies.
Tumultuous HistoryA country torn between two opposing parties
- 1971 Bangladesh is created after the war of independence from Pakistan (below) in which hundreds of thousands of civilians die.
- 1975 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's leader, and his family are assassinated during an army coup. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is traveling and survives.
- 1977 Gen. Ziaur Rahman becomes president.
- 1981 Gen. Rahman is assassinated during a failed military coup.
- 1991 Khaleda Zia, the general's widow, is elected prime minister. She will alternate in power with Sheikh Hasina over next 20 years.
- 2006 Violent protests between Bangladesh's two major parties over coming elections. Army-backed government takes over, imprisoning many top politicians.
- 2009 Sheikh Hasina returns to power.
- 2011 Government says army stops coup attempt by Islamist officers.
- April 2012 Violent protests by Khaleda Zia supporters begin over disappearance of a leading party member.
Police have failed to solve a number of political murders and disappearances, including the killing in February of a prominent journalist couple in their Dhaka apartment. Bangladeshi human-rights group Odhikar says 30 people went missing last yearin unexplained circumstances.
These incidents and political protests have shattered a veneer of peace since Ms. Hasina returned to power, a rare period of stability for a nation of 160 million people with a history of coups and political violence since the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Bangladesh for decades has been unhinged by political vendettas, largely stemming from deep animosity between the supporters of Ms. Hasina's Awami League and the Khaleda Zia-led BNP.
Ms. Hasina's father and Ms. Zia's husband were both heroes of Bangladesh's war of independence. But their political progeny have feuded, with Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia alternating in power for 20 years.
In 2007, Bangladesh's military installed a civilian government to stop bloody street battles between supporters of the two parties. The military detained top leaders of both parties, including Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia, on charges including corruption and murder, but allowed elections in late 2008.
The BNP has boycotted Parliament for much of the past two years. Its leaders say the government has unfairly tried to paint them as religious extremists because of an alliance with an Islamist party in past elections.
They also complain Ms. Hasina has politicized a war-crimes tribunal looking into the mass killings of Bangladeshi nationalists by pro-Pakistan Islamist militias during the 1971 independence war. Two BNP leaders are among the eight people facing trial.
The government says militancy remains a threat and claims to have foiled a planned army coup in December led by hard-line Islamist officers. Some analysts say the plot was more likely a result of internal army politics.
On a visit in February, Robert Blake, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, praised Bangladesh for its counterterrorism work.
Mr. Blake raised concerns, though, about media freedom and a draft law that would impose restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. He also urged Bangladesh to find a qualified successor to Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate who founded Grameen Bank, Bangladesh's best-known company.
Bangladesh's central bank forced Mr. Yunus from the helm of the micro lender last year on a technicality and it remains without a leader. Some analysts said Grameen, with more than 8 million depositors and a score of other businesses, had become too powerful in the eyes of Bangladesh's politicians.
More recently, the government has been hit by a number of corruption scandals. Earlier this month, railways minister Suranjit Sengupta resigned on allegations he took bribes from applicants seeking jobs. He denies wrongdoing.
Ordinary people remain hit by high inflation and daily power outages that have dented the government's popularity since its landslide victory in 2009.
Now, the BNP is threatening to call for strikes until the return of Mr. Ali.
"The government has pushed us to the wall," said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, a BNP spokesman.
A version of this article appeared April 25, 2012, on page A11 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Vanished Politician Roils BangladeshTumultuous History.