Bangladesh’s ruling party on Monday won one of the most violent elections in the country’s history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that made the results a foregone conclusion.
Although a win by the ruling Awami League was never in doubt, the chaos surrounding Sunday’s election plunges Bangladesh deeper into turmoil and economic stagnation, and could lead to more violence in a deeply impoverished country of 160 million.
Few were in the mood to celebrate after the carnage of election day when nearly 600 polling stations were torched or trashed.
On Monday, clashes stemming from the election killed three people in Dohar, outside the capital, according to police. At least 18 people were killed Sunday as police fired at protesters and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations.
“We are passing our days in fear and anxiety,” said Abdur Rahman, an accountant and resident of the capital, Dhaka, where soldiers patrolled the streets Monday. “These two major parties don’t care about anything. Only Allah knows what is in store now for us.”
The Awami League won 232 of the 300 elected seats, the Election Commission said Monday, far more than 151 required to form a government. Because of the boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and some 20 other opposition factions, about half the seats were uncontested, allowing the Awami League to rack up many victories.
Turnout was only 22 per cent, according to election officials who asked that their names not be used because the election is so politically sensitive. In the last election, in 2008, turnout was 87 per cent.
The political feuding in this South Asian nation can be traced back decades, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the opposition leader, vie for power. The country has been ruled by either of these women – both from powerful political families – for nearly 22 years.
The squabbling between the two, known as the “Battling Begums”, is at the heart of much of the political drama. “Begum” is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.
The opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Hasina’s government resign so a neutral administration can oversee the polls. They say Hasina might rig the election if she stays in office, a claim she denies.
Zia has been under de facto house arrest for more than a week after mobilising supporters in a bid to derail the election.
Hasina, who first came to power in 1996 and then thrashed Zia in a 2008 comeback, has accused her arch-rival of orchestrating the violence which reached a crescendo on Sunday.
The boycott came after Hasina refused to heed their demands. Political violence has convulsed the country in recent months as opposition activists staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades to press their demands. Nearly 300 people have been killed in political violence since last February.
The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth refused to send observers for Sunday’s election because it was not inclusive.
Mulling a dialogue
Now, the vote raises pressure on the Bangladesh government to hold talks with the opposition. The turmoil also could lead to radicalisation in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.
One of Hasina’s top lieutenants ruled out early dialogue with the BNP to agree a framework for a new vote. “We’re not thinking about talks right now,” Environment Minister Hasan Mahmud said. “Our top priority now is to form a government and contain violence. We have to eliminate violence and militancy to give the people a breather.”
“We can’t say it was a universally acceptable election,” Communications Minister Obaidul Kader said. “The festive atmosphere was absent and the turnout was ordinary … but you can’t say it is unacceptable.
“Our next task is to form the government. We are ready to hold talks with the opposition to find a consensus, but first they have to eschew violence.”
Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper described the polls as the deadliest in the country’s history, and said in an editorial that the Awami League won “a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively”.
But the editorial also was critical of the opposition’s role in fuelling violence.
“Political parties have the right to boycott elections. They also have the right to motivate people to side with their position. But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election,” the newspaper said.
Bangladesh’s parliament has 350 seats, with 300 directly elected and another 50 reserved for women who get elected by other chamber members.
Despite warnings that Sunday’s crushing victory did not amount to a mandate, the ruling Awami League vowed to “eliminate militancy” as the death toll from election-day violence rose to 24.
Most of those fatalities were shot dead by police, and the toll also included an election official and polling station security guard.