Bangladesh on edge ahead of election

An opposition boycott and incidents of violence could lead to a low turnout on Sunday.

Dhaka, Bangladesh – With Bangladeshis prepared to vote on Sunday in national parliamentary elections, tensions are mounting on the streets, as many expect violence to follow the polls.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said on Thursday night that the government is pushing the country towards “a civil war” through the “farcical” polls.

Analysts worry ongoing political violence will hurt Bangladesh’s economy over the long-run.

More than two weeks ahead of the vote, the Election Commission revealed that 154 constituencies, out of a total of 300 seats in the Bangladesh parliament, were won by the ruling alliance, unopposed.

The ruling party believes that the 18-party opposition is to blame for this situation due to their boycott. Twenty-seven political parties, including the BNP-led opposition alliance, are not taking part in the polls as their demands for a neutral caretaker government to administer the country during the election were denied. Ruling party chief and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will continue governing the country while running in the election.

“With the 18-party opposition not taking part in the elections, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) (National Socialist Party) candidate Shirin Akhter was elected unopposed from the area,” Businessman AKM Samshuddin said of the governing party alliance candidate running in his district. “Akhter is not so popular. She did not even visit the area prior to elections,” he told Al Jazeera.

Abdullah Al-Aman, a teacher and voter in Dhaka, the capital, told Al Jazeera: “Our community will not be voting on Sunday as already ruling party candidate Mohammad Aslamul Haq has won unopposed.”

Iqbal Mahmud, a journalist living in Dhaka, is part of a minority who will be voting in a district contested by several parties. “I will not go to the poll booths as I fear for my life,” he told Al Jazeera. “Also, my vote will not make any meaningful difference as the ruling party candidate will win.”

‘A civil war’

Political analysts speculated that turnout will be low on Sunday as many fear violence at polling booths. At least five polling centres were set on fire on Friday as the opposition enforced a nationwide blockade. Besides several incidents of violence outside Dhaka, crude bomb explosions in various parts of the capital were also reported.

In depth

More from Bangladesh:

  Infographic: High stakes in Bangladesh vote
  Bangladesh hit by general strike on poll eve
  Election monitors to boycott Bangladesh polls
  Bangladesh elections: participate at your own risk
  Strike threat ahead of Bangladesh election
  How to not do a war crimes tribunal: the case for Bangladesh

Two others were killed on Thursday night after a petrol bomb was hurled at their truck. The main opposition has denied responsibility for the violence. “It is being wrought by the government and the blame is being placed on us,” Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, Senior Vice Chairman of the BNP, told Al Jazeera. He pointed to how the government had stopped the opposition from holding a major rally.

During a speech on December 24, opposition alliance chief and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia called the elections “a shameless selection”. She called for a “March For Democracy” on December 29, where protesters from around the country were set to converge on Dhaka.  

But starting on December 27, hundreds of law enforcement personnel have surrounded Zia’s residence. The BNP claims that Zia is under house arrest. 

“The March For Democracy was going to be a peaceful political programme,” Chowdhury said. “But ahead of it, the government through its forces, delinked Dhaka from the rest of the country, not letting people into the capital.”

“The government is scared and has lost all public support.” 

BNP Vice Chairman Osman Faruk blamed the government for holding “the polls that will lead to a civil war” in a press conference on Thursday. He said protests would continue until a “free and fair election” is held.

At least 200 people have been killed since October 27, when opposition supporters say the government’s tenure should have ended.  

Although 50,000 troops were deployed on December 26 and will remain in the streets until January 9 to aid with election-related security, many fear that the death toll will rise following the vote.

“I thought the elections would not occur,” Abdu Salam, a businessman in Dhaka told Al Jazeera. “But now that it is occurring, unrest will continue for months.”

“I always voted for the ruling party,” he said. “But after their activities this term, I do not want to vote for either the ruling party or the opposition ever again.”

Bobby Hajjaj, special adviser to former Bangladesh president H M Ershad, told Al Jazeera: “We are gradually heading towards a bloody revolution. The government is clinging on to power because they do not have any exit strategy in place.”

Economic concerns

The international community including the United Nations, US, European Union (EU), Russia and others are pressuring the two political camps to find common ground. These international groups won’t be sending observers to the election, casting a doubt over the credibility of the polls.

If the political impasse prolongs, there will be irreversible damage on the economy.

by -Mustafizur Rahman, Centre for Policy Dialogue

Marie Harf, a spokesperson for the US State Department, was asked on Thursday whether the US would recognise the elections despite the opposition boycott. “I don’t want to prejudge the outcome or what we’ll say afterwards… As I’ve been clear, they [political parties] haven’t taken steps to hold free, fair, and credible elections, so clearly that’s not a good sign.”

Analysts fear that a non-credible government in power will prolong political violence, eventually leading to sanctions on Bangladesh’s exports. The country’s economy is fuelled by annual international exports worth $21.5bn.

“If the political impasse prolongs, there will be irreversible damage on the economy,” said Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based research organisation.

He pointed out that since July, term loan disbursement has dropped by 9 percent, and non-performing bank loans have increased above 12 percent.

“These are negative signs for the economy: exports are affected through transport disruption hampering supply chain and causing increased prices. [The] cost of doing businesses is increasing. Private sector investment in the country is also heavily affected,” Rahman said.

‘Constitutional polls’

Mahbubul Alam Hanif, Joint General Secretary of the governing Bangladesh Awami League, said the elections will be free and fair. “The government is obliged to go ahead with it according to Bangladesh’s Constitution,” told Al Jazeera said.

He said that the opposition did not take part in the elections because “of internal organisational problems”.

When asked about the sustainability of the polls, he said, “I cannot comment on this right away. The turnout on the day of the polls will answer this.”

As for the potential for political unrest after the elections, Hanif said “violence is not part of politics, it is terrorism. An elected government will be strict against any form of terrorism.”

Bangladesh goes into the election amid a 48-hour general strike enforced by the BNP from January 4, disrupting transport communications across the country.

Source: Al Jazeera