Bangladesh Braces for Election-Day Clashes as BNP Boycotts Vote

Bangladesh goes to the polls today amid a boycott by the main opposition party, deepening fears of further violence in the South Asian nation as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is set to win another five-year term.

About half the 91.9 million voters won’t have to go to the polling stations to cast votes, as 153 candidates were elected uncontested, according to data from the Election Commission. Voting will take place in the remaining 147 seats in the 10th parliamentary election since the nation’s founding in 1971.

The Election Commission plans to extend the deployment of troops in trouble spots to maintain law and order, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad told reporters in Dhaka on Jan. 2. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies started an indefinite, nationwide blockade on Jan. 1 to force the government to abandon the polls.

“The blockade will not create any problem for the elections,” Ahmad said. “Voters will cast votes in their respective areas and I don’t think they will face any hurdle.”

At least two people died on Jan. 3 after blockaders conducted arson attacks, prompting a commercial truck to fall into a ditch in northern Bangladesh, according to The Daily Star. The same day in the capital Dhaka, a bus came under arson attacks and five passengers were burnt, private television station ATN News reported.

“This election is a total farce,” Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, said in a statement on Jan. 3. “Nobody at home and abroad will endorse this election,” she said as her party announced a 48-hour transport shutdown starting yesterday in addition to its ongoing blockade.

Poll Stations Attacked

At least 30 polling stations in different parts of the country were set ablaze by attackers with suspected ties to the opposition, after Zia urged her party members to resist the polls, according to ATN News.

Hasina’s ruling Awami League needs to win only 24 seats of 147 up for grabs today for a parliamentary majority after taking 127 of the 153 uncontested constituencies. Voting will continue until 4 p.m. local time.

Opposition parties want a caretaker administration to oversee the vote, a practice implemented in the past three elections after a demand from the Awami League in the 1990s when it was in the opposition. Hasina’s prosecution of Islamist leaders aligned with the BNP for war crimes that took place four decades ago during the country’s founding has spurred attacks with arson and home-made bombs.

Deadliest Year

In 2013, at least 507 people died and another 22,407 were injured in political violence, making it the deadliest year in politics, according to data from Ain O Salish Kendra, a legal aid and human rights organization in Dhaka. Security forces carried out executions and killed innocent bystanders in attempting to quell protests against war crimes verdicts, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an August report.

“I fear a far bigger chaos ahead if the two camps don’t compromise on the political issues,” Ahsan H. Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, a Dhaka-based think tank, said on the eve of the election. “A prolonged conflict will create a situation for a third force to intervene, and the possibility of intervention by the army cannot be ruled out as seen in the past.”

Bangladesh 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. 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.

In an opinion poll conducted by English-language newspaper Dhaka Tribune, about 77 percent of respondents said today’s polls won’t be acceptable without the BNP’s participation. About 41 percent said they will cast votes even though it’s not an inclusive election. The poll surveyed 2,438 people between Dec. 14 and Dec. 22 and has an error rate of less than 3 percent.

“What we need badly now is a pause in the conflict between the two parties,” said Mansur. “And political leaders must behave rationally.”

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