Bangladesh elections hit by wave of violence

A fire is a welcome source of warmth on Dhaka's streets, lined with campaign posters. Picture: Reuters
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BLOODY street clashes and caustic political vendettas marred the run-up to today’s general election in Bangladesh, with the vote threatening to plunge the country even deeper into crisis.

The opposition and its allies are boycotting the vote – a move that undermines the legitimacy of the election and makes it unlikely that the polls will stem a wave of political violence that killed at least 275 people in 2013.

Much of the capital, Dhaka, has been cut off from the rest of the country in recent weeks, as the opposition has 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, leading to a growing sense of desperation over the political impasse. 
Up to 50 schools and other facilities to be used as polling stations have been burned down since Friday, television 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 neighbours go, I may go.”

The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country of 160 million and lead to radicalisation in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.

The opposition demands 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 country’s 300 parliamentary constituencies.

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

“I am fearful that deadly violence could return, people would continue to suffer, political forces with extreme views could emerge in the face of government crackdown and repressive measures,” said Asif Nazrul, a law teacher and analyst. “This election will just pollute our very new democracy by shrinking the space for opposite views.”

The squabbling between Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia – known as the “Battling Begums” – has become a bitter sideshow as both women vie to lead the country. “Begum” is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.

Last weekend, after authorities barred Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, she told police that she would change the name of Gopalganj, Hasina’s home district, if she came to power.

Her outburst was broadcast live on TV, while roads around her home were heavily guarded and trucks were parked to obstruct her movement.

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

Zia and Hasina have dominated Bangladeshi politics for two decades, which is more a reflection of South Asia’s penchant for political dynasties than of the role of women in this mostly Muslim nation.

A key factor in the latest dispute is the role of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party. The party is a key ally of Zia, and was a coalition partner in the government Zia led from 2001 to 2006.

Opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami say it is a fundamentalist group with no place in a secular country. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, but is governed by largely secular laws based on British common law.

The execution last month of Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader and a key member of the opposition, exposed the country’s seething tensions. He was the first person to be hanged for war crimes in Bangladesh under an international tribunal established in 2010 to investigate atrocities stemming from the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators including Mollah, killed three million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war. The case remains politically volatile because most of those being tried are connected to the opposition.

In the wake of Mollah’s hanging, the country’s polarisation was clear. Even as hundreds rejoiced in the streets of Dhaka, others launched violent protests and torched homes and businesses belonging to government supporters. After Mollah was hanged, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Makbul Ahmed, vowed to deepen the role of Islam in the country to avenge the execution.

As the political situation unravels, Bangladesh is trying to emerge from suffocating poverty and reinvigorate its £12 billion garment industry. The industry has been rocked by a series of disasters, including a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers. The deaths laid bare the harsh working conditions in an industry that employs four million Bangladeshis and provides clothing to major western retailers.

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