Bangladesh Polls Violence Rises

Bangladesh’s furious opposition allies have termed Sunday’s national polls a “farce election” and imposed a Hartal – a general strike – across the country, paving the way for more violence.

Undeterred by calls to postpone yesterday’s election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s Awami League went to the polls despite the fact that half the country boycotted them and that it will do nothing to put an end to the violence and hostility that have plagued the country virtually since its founding in 1971.

The Awami League declared yesterday that it had won 153 of the country’s 300 seats in the Jatiya Sansad, or parliament, hardly a surprise since there were no opposition candidates. A similar outcome is expected in the other seats as well.

The feud between Hasina and her bitter foe, Begum Khaleda Zia, has brought millions of poor Bangladeshis to storm into the streets and quarrel relentlessly without any constructive outcome. As many as 20 people reportedly died in the current round of violence and 440 polling stations were forced to close Sunday. Reports of attacks on polling centers poured in as opposition party members vandalized and even set to fire centers in Chittagong, Lakshmipur, Rajshahi, Pirojpur, Sylhet, Jhenaidah, Natore, Sirajganj, Brahmanbaria, Feni, Barisal, Rajshahi, Charaghat, Dinajpur, Sitakunda, Daganbhuiyan and others.

The current crisis, which had already taken the lives of as many as 200 people since October, stems from a 2011 decision by Sheikh Hasina to use her parliamentary power, given the coalition’s two-thirds majority in parliament, to void a constitutional provision that a neutral caretaker government take charge on dissolution of parliament to run the election. Critics said it was out of concern that the Awami League didn’t have the votes to form another government.

Khaleda, the head of the rival Bangladesh National Party, refused to accept that provision, as did other members of her coalition. The two have traded the prime ministership at virtually every election for two decades, with their rivalry all but paralyzing government in the poverty-stricken nation of 156 million people. As their feud has preoccupied both opposition and government, development has largely stalled. A staggering 81.33 percent of the population was reported living on less than US$2 per day in 2011.

What happens next is unclear. In 2007, violence between the two main warring political parties and their supporters veered out of control, forcing the army to step in to install a provisional government to stop the carnage. At least 150 leading political figures were subsequently arrested, including Khaleda and Hasina themselves, on charges of corruption and dozens of former ministers and political figures were sentenced to jail by the caretaker government appointed to run the country. Elections were stalled for two years while reformers attempted vainly to sort out the problems. The two women were freed to resume their decades-old rivalry.

There is widespread international concern that the country will once again descend into chaos, with both United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry attempting to mediate between the coalitions, which appear to grow ever more estranged. Concerns have also been raised by various countries and international agencies including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the European Union, with all urging the parties to go for dialogue and to seek compromise.

The likelihood appears high that the polls won’t be recognized by the international community as a credible election. The UN, EU, US and the Commonwealth all refused to send electoral observers for the polls, indicating that the new government would find it very difficult to deal with those governments as a whole to ensure the credibility of a democratic regime.

The government put Khaleda virtually under house arrest to prevent her joining in the march. But Hasina made it clear that the election would be held in accordance with the Bangladesh constitution under the supervision of the Bangladesh election commission. In a recent televised address to the nation, she claimed that she tried her best to convince the opposition leaders to join in the election, but they put a deaf ear to it.

Hasina’s trusted minister AMA Muhith pointed out soon after the Jan. 5 election process is over and a new government is formed in Dhaka, a fresh election could be held in the country with the participation of all political parties.

Ban Ki-moon tied to convince both the Begums to talk and resolve the issue of neutral government to run the election, but it yielded nothing. Not to speak of other prominent leaders around the world, the UN chief himself requested Hasina to postpone the election until the opposition parties agree to join in the important electoral process for the 150 million population nation.

Holiday, a popular English weekly published from Dhaka on its January 3 issue editorialized that “Given the hideous reality that --Khaleda has been held in virtual internment in her residence since 28 December,” the editorial asserted, “Hasina’s obdurate refusal to a mutually acceptable settlement for an election-time neutral administration --demanded by about 90 per cent Bangladeshis and concurred by the UN, the US, the UK, the EU, China and others--- have almost sealed the fate of stability and peace in Bangladesh.”