Violence precedes Bangladesh poll
Published 04/01/2014 | 09:27
The run-up to tomorrow's general election in Bangladesh has been marked by bloody street clashes, and the vote threatens 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 transport 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, 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 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 Ms Hasina has refused, which means the election will mainly be a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. In more than half of Parliament's 300 seats, the Awami League candidate is running unchallenged.
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.
"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 Ms 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.
The bickering between the two long-time rivals caused an uproar in October, when the women spoke for the first time in years in an acrimonious telephone call.
"I called you around noon. You didn't pick up," Ms Hasina said, according to a transcript published in the Dhaka Tribune, an English-language newspaper.
Ms Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said the prime minister was wrong.
"You have to listen to me first," Ms Zia snapped.
Last weekend, after authorities barred Ms Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, she told police that she would change the name of Gopalganj, Ms 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 sand-laden trucks were parked to obstruct her movement.
Yesterday, Ms Zia again urged people to boycott what she called "farcical" elections. "None at home and abroad will legitimise it," she said.
Ms Zia and Ms 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 Ms Zia, and was a coalition partner in the government Ms 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.
Mollah 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 at least 3 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.