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Asia

Violence could compromise Bangladesh poll

Ahead of parliamentary elections, the situation remains volatile, with opposition set to boycott. Since the end of December, Dhaka has been all but cut off from the rest of the country for fear of violent escalations.

"The situation is very tense at the moment," according to Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka. The governing Awami League (AL) and its strongest opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been engaged in a row for months now over how the elections, slated for Sunday, January 5, will be conducted.

When the date for the elections was set mid-November, BNP supporters reacted using violence. Throughout the entire country, they took to the streets, torched dozens of vehicles and engaged in confrontations with the police. Over 100 people have died in the violence so far and thousands more have been injured.

Bangladesch Demonstrationen in Dhaka 30. Dez. 2013

Despite a lockdown, people protested across the capital at the end of December

Caretaker government

The bone of contention lies in the dispute over the formation, or more specifically, the non-formation, of an interim caretaker government to oversee this year's parliamentary elections. Instead of instating a non-partisan party to conduct elections, Prime Minster Sheihk Hasina has formed a so-called "all-party cabinet." Members of this, though, only include ministers of her coalition; she remains the head of government in this interim cabinet.

This has earned the ire of the opposition, which sees the incumbent government as "illegal." The BNP and other opposition parties demand a neutral interim government, which used to be common practice. In fact, there was a law in place which allowed the military to form a temporary government for the purpose of overseeing elections.

Sheikh Hasina scrapped the law in 2011, calling it "unconstitutional" to have a non-governing body oversee elections. In 2007, the military did, in fact, did appoint a non-elected body, which ended up putting both Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia in jail.

Opposition takes to the streets

With mass rallies, violent clashes and general strikes on the streets, opposition parties have been making their fury known. "The opposition is flexing its muscle - it can't do that in parliament, but it can on the streets," Ahmed explained. "Now the governing party is simply waiting to see how strong the BNP is. If it is truly capable of bringing public life to a standstill and create a lot of violence, then the AL might eventually be willing to compromise."

Pro-government activists set fire to a motorcycle during a clash with lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami inside the premises of Supreme Court in Dhaka December 29, 2013. At least three lawyers were injured after they were attacked by pro-government activists during a protest inside the Supreme Court premises in Dhaka on Sunday. (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)

In an effort to avoid further violence, opposition leader Zia has been ordered by police to stay at home

But so far, there haven't been many signs of any willingness to compromise. On the contrary: 18 opposition parties have announced they wish not to take part in parliamentary elections and even the Jatiya Party, an important ally of the government, wants to boycott the poll. The only parties which have registered to run in the elections are the Awami League and other, small left-leaning parties.

Political polarization

Bangladesh's political landscape is characterized by an irreconcilable enmity between the two leaders of the two largest parties: Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia - a former two-time prime minster - of the BNP. For years now, power has ping-ponged back and forth between the two.

"No matter which party happens to be in government, it marginalizes the opposition, which, in turn, uses all means to stand up to the government," said Jasmin Lorch, a Bangladesh expert at the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies. She views the ongoing developments with concern. "If no compromise between is found, Bangladesh can expect to see further violent riots on the streets and political instability."

Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina

Zia (L), and Hasina (R) have been fighting over power for years

Imtiaz Ahmed also voiced concern over a further escalation of violence. Then exactly the thing that Sheikh Hasina wanted to avoid would happen - that the military steps in. "And then things would get a whole lot more chaotic."

The international community is needed in Bangladesh, says Lorch. "It could play a pivotal role by urging both sides to talk to each other, while at the same time signalizing that a military intervention is not a preferred option."