Bangladesh vote seen as unlikely to stem wave of violence

January 4, 2014

The run-up to Sunday’s general election in Bangladesh has been marked by bloody street clashes and caustic political vendettas, and the vote threatens to plunge the South Asian country even deeper into crisis.

The opposition and its allies are boycotting the election, undermining its legitimacy and making it unlikely, observers say, that the polls will stem a wave of political violence that left at least 275 people dead in 2013.

Much of the capital, Dhaka, has been cut off from the rest of the country in recent weeks as the opposition pressed its demands through general strikes and transportation blockades. Civilians have been caught up in the bloodshed, with activists torching vehicles belonging to motorists who defy the strikes. Since Friday, as many as 50 schools and other facilities that were to be used as polling stations have been burned down, TV reports said.

“I want to go to vote, but I am afraid of violence,” said Hazera Begum, a teacher in Dhaka. “If the situation is normal and my neighbors go, I may go.”

The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in the impoverished country of 160 million and radicalize a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.

The opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and appoint a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election. But Hasina has refused, which means the election will mainly be a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. Awami League candidates are running unchallenged in more than half of the 300 parliamentary districts.

Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

“This election will just pollute our very new democracy by shrinking the space for opposite views,” said Asif Nazrul, a law teacher and analyst.

The squabbling between Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who have dominated Bangladeshi politics for two decades, has become a bitter sideshow.

Last weekend, after authorities barred Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, the opposition leader told police that if she came to power, she would change the name of Gopalganj, Hasina’s home district. Her remarks were broadcast live on TV while roads around her home were heavily guarded and sand-laden trucks obstructed her movement.

On Friday, Zia again urged people to boycott what she called “farcical” elections. “None at home and abroad will legitimize it,” she said.

A key factor in the latest dispute is the role of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party and a key ally of Zia. Opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami say it is a fundamentalist group with no place in a secular country. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, but its laws, based on British common law, are mostly secular.

The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth said they would not send observers to monitor Sunday’s voting.

“We’re disappointed that the major political parties have not yet reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair and credible elections,” U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said this past week.

— Associated Press

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