Nobel Laureate Eyes Election as Next Prize

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was honored last night by a women's empowerment group.
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was honored last night by a women's empowerment group. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who turned small-scale lending to village women into a powerful force against poverty in his native Bangladesh and other low-income countries, was busy breaking other barriers yesterday.

He became the first man to be formally honored by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a women's empowerment group in Washington. He also reaffirmed that he was launching his own political party, Citizens' Power, and plans to run for president in upcoming elections at home.

In that struggle, a man world-famous for helping powerless women will be up against political parties run by two very powerful women known as the "battling begums" -- Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Both were born into prominent political families and control effective vote-gathering machines.

So far Yunus has failed to generate a significant political following in Bangladesh, which is in the grip of army emergency powers, mass arrests and a political crisis. Many of his supporters say that a man known for honesty and pure motives should not dirty himself in politics. The Bangladesh news media have also been highly critical.

His Washington honor was presented at a Kennedy Center ceremony last night co-chaired by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom Yunus got to know along with her husband during the Clinton presidency.

In an interview yesterday, Yunus said that in Bangladesh, women's empowerment has progressed dramatically, despite strikes, bombings and assassinations that have often hindered economic life.

Ninety-seven percent of his Grameen Bank's 7 million borrowers are women. He pointed out that 70 percent of the bank's borrowers are also depositors. Most children of borrowers are in school, though their parents are generally illiterate, he said.

Economic growth in the country is running at 7 percent, after China's booming 10 to 11 percent annual rate. "Bangladesh could have been at a par with China had we had good governance and the chance of . . . a peaceful environment," he said.

The Bangladesh military declared emergency powers on Jan. 11 after rioting and political stalemate. Elections that under constitutional requirements were to take place that month were postponed. The delay was in part due to international concerns over alleged padding of voter registration lists by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Yunus said he would resign from Grameen Bank once the official campaign period begins but would continue to prioritize women as a national resource. "This is not just politics for getting elected, but because they are a real strength," he said.

Yunus said he was saddened by media criticism of his planned candidacy. "People will say anything to deface you," he said, but he declined to respond to specific allegations. "This is the time to create something, a new core of talented young people rather than have all this meaningless infighting."

Yunus said the Bangladesh army was "cleaning up" by detaining corrupt officials.

He expressed confidence that new electoral regulations and electoral commission would help see the country through fair elections. "Everything people have been clamoring for is being put into effect, such as clean electoral procedures," he said. He said he believed elections would be held by the end of the year.

"It may ring untrue, but he is not at odds with the army," said Tasneem Khalil, an editor at the English-language Daily Star in the capital, Dhaka. "He may be well intentioned. However, there is a much darker agenda at work here and Dr. Yunus may be falling into a trap. He is being exploited."

Yunus may be cast as an alternative to the BNP and the Awami League, Khalil said by telephone. But "he lacks political vision and charisma and the organizational wherewithal to come up with an effective political machine to make his party a political success," Khalil said.

"It is not going to be fair play. For the last 15 years, political parties have been headed by the two begums," or women of high rank. "No one liked this, everybody who wants change hates it and the international community is getting very frustrated.

"At first," Khalil continued, "the military-backed civilian government was welcome, but now there is a vacuum."

He said that more than 95,00o people have been arrested since Jan. 11. A team from New York-based Human Rights Watch that returned recently from Dhaka confirmed systematic arrests, but said it was impossible to establish a number. Sam Zarifi, Asia research director at the group, said detainees had no recourse to due process.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company