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Bangladesh Leader Vows Crackdown on Opponents After Vote

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed ordered security forces to take tougher measures against opponents after she won a second five-year term in a boycotted election that saw more than a dozen people killed.

Hasina’s Awami League won 231 parliamentary seats of 300 in yesterday’s election, which was boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, according to unofficial results cited in The Daily Star, the nation’s top selling English-language newspaper. Police in several areas shot dead protesters who tried to storm polling stations, while arson attacks also hindered voting.

“The government has zero tolerance to any extremism and violence,” Hasina said at a press conference in Dhaka today. “There will be no talks with the opposition until it dissociates itself” from the unrest, she said.

Hasina faces the challenge of quelling the deadliest period of political unrest since the country’s founding in 1971 to avoid further disruptions in the world’s second-largest garment exporter, which supplies retailers from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Gap Inc. Constant nationwide strikes by political opponents risk hurting an economy situated near India and China that is forecast to grow 7 percent in the next fiscal year.

“The election has shown how polarized Bangladesh politics is, and that instability is set to continue,” S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, a research organization based in New Delhi, said by phone. “There will be a threat to the economy, which has been doing well compared with India and other countries.”

Security forces shot dead at least 22 opposition supporters as they rallied against the polls throughout the country, Osman Farooq, a BNP spokesman, told reporters in the capital of Dhaka yesterday. Inspector General of Police Hassan Mahmood Khandker did not answer two calls to his mobile phone today.

‘Farcical Election’

“Voter turnout was very low, which means people have shunned this farcical election,” Farooq said, adding that the party extended a Jan. 1 call to shut down public transport systems by another 48 hours.

He repeated calls for Hasina to step down to allow for a caretaker administration to oversee new polls, a practice that had been implemented during the past three elections after a demand from her Awami League in the 1990s when it was in the opposition.

War Crimes

Hasina’s prosecution of Islamist leaders aligned with the BNP for war crimes over the last year that took place during the country’s founding has spurred attacks with arson and homemade bombs. Leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s biggest Islamic party that is aligned with the BNP, had supported Pakistan in the conflict and have faced charges of war crimes.

Hasina will probably push ahead with war crimes trials and use them as a source of legitimacy for her government, according to Hossain Zillur Rahman, an adviser to the former caretaker government that oversaw the last election in 2008. That will lead to further repression of opposition groups, he said, adding that he opposed yesterday’s vote.

“The political impasse is going to continue,” he said. “The election is over -- the crisis is not.”

About half of the country’s 91.9 million voters didn’t have to cast ballots because 153 candidates were elected unopposed, according to data from the Election Commission. Officials suspended voting in 3 percent of polling stations after vandals destroyed the centers and ballot papers, the body said, without saying when official results would be announced.

“It was a constitutional obligation for us to hold the election,” Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, chief election commissioner, said yesterday after the vote. “It would have been far nicer if all parties had taken part.”

Economic Fallout

Hasina’s Awami League only needed to win under a fifth of the 147 seats up for grabs yesterday for a parliamentary majority after taking most of the uncontested constituencies. The country has seen several coups and two dozen smaller rebellions since the nation gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 in a war that left an estimated 3 million people dead.

Bangladesh lost 71 days to shutdowns and blockades last year, according to The Daily Star. That’s up from an average of 46 days a year since 1991, according to a study published by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a research group based in Dhaka.

The country’s $140 billion economy will expand 5.5 percent in the fiscal year ending in June, the slowest pace since 2002, before strengthening to 7 percent the following year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Political uncertainty poses a risk to growth, it said in a report last month.

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