DHAKA, Bangladesh– Voters went to the polls last Sunday in Bangladesh, returning the ruling Awami League to power in a parliamentary election that was marred by violence, low turnout and a boycott by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which staged a series of debilitating strikes and transport blockades in the lead up to the ballot in a failed bid to prevent the vote from taking place.
The boycott by 21 opposition parties, including the BNP-led 18 party opposition alliance, meant that fewer than half of parliament’s 300 seats were contested, ensuring a victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her Awami League before the ballot even took place. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won 127 seats unopposed, along with 102 of the contested seats, giving it a total 232 seats in Bangladesh’s 300-member parliament.
The Bangladesh Election Commission published partial results putting turnout at 39.6%, a sharp drop from the 2008 elections, when more than 87% of voters cast ballots.
At least 22 people were killed in election day violence, as opposition supporters torched more than 200 polling stations, detonated homemade bombs, attacked election workers and staged a 48-hour strike. Voting was halted at about 400 polling stations, according to Reuters.
Saturday’s violence punctuated a particularly bloody election season in which the BNP and its opposition allies orchestrated a series of violently-enforced transport blockades that killed scores of people and brought commerce to a standstill in this impoverished, predominately Sunni Muslim South Asian nation of 160 million people.
The BNP, headed by former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, launched the transport blockades, which have occurred almost continuously since late November, after Sheikh Hasina, Zia’s longtime political nemesis, spurned Zia’s demands to install a neutral “non-party” caretaker government to rule the country during the elections. Non-party caretaker governments oversaw successful polls in 1996 and 2001, but Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government amended the country’s constitution in 2011, scrapping the caretaker system establish by a 1996 constitutional amendment and allowing incumbent administrations to govern the country during elections.
In late November, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladeshi independence leader Mujibur Rahman, rejected Zia’s demands that she resign and turnover power to a caretaker administration, enraging Zia’s supporters, who took to streets and began more than a month of almost nonstop blockades of the nation’s roads, railways and waterways. The violently enforced blockades, in which supporters of the BNP-led opposition torched buses packed with passengers, attacked taxi cabs, detonated bombs and engaged in other acts of violence targeting Bangladeshi’s defying the strikes, killed more than 100 people, brought commerce to a standstill and pushed the impoverished nation to the precipice of complete chaos.
Around 500 people were killed in political violence in Bangladesh last year, according to The Economist.
The constant bickering between Zia and Sheikh Hasina, who have a long-running political feud that is partially rooted Hasina’s belief that Zia’s late husband played a role in fathers assassination, has also taken a toll on the nations export-dependent economy. Orders of garments, which constitute 80% of the country’s exports, have been cut nearly in half over the past three months, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA).
– Eric Erdahl
Sources/Photo: BBC, BBC, BBC, The Economist, The Times of India, New York Times Reuters,