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Intensfying turmoil

Srinivas MazumdaruJanuary 6, 2015

Tensions continue to rise after a day of violent clashes on the occasion of the first anniversary of PM Sheikh Hasina's disputed re-election. DW examines the current political situation in the country.

Bangladesch Dhaka Zusammenstöße Gewalt Straßenschlachten 5.1.2015
Image: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com

For the past several years, Bangladesh has been marred by a spate of political crises, with frequent strikes, attacks and blockades preventing businesses from functioning normally and hurting ordinary citizens' ability to go about their lives. The latest episode of political volatility began on January 3 when police banned protests in the capital Dhaka and confined the leader of the country's main opposition party BNP, Khaleda Zia, to her office.

Zia had earlier called on activists to take to the streets to mark what the opposition dubbed "Democracy Killing Day" on January 5, the first anniversary of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's disputed re-election last year, which the opposition BNP boycotted claiming the vote would be rigged.

On Monday, clashes between opposition supporters, ruling party activists and police resulted in the killing of at least four anti-government protesters. Dozens were injured across the South Asian nation. Following the news, Zia called on her supporters to enforce an indefinite nationwide transport blockade.

In the latest development, the government threatened Tuesday to bring murder charges against Zia, who has repeatedly criticized the government's actions, calling them "illegal."

The authorities also arrested the head of the television station ETV and ordered the network off the air a day after broadcasting a speech by the son of the opposition leader. Police said the move was prompted by the channel's airing of "pornographic" material, but others dismissed the official explanation as false allegations.

Unruhen in Bangladesch 05.01.2015
Zia has been prevented from leaving her office in Dhaka since January 3Image: picture-alliance/epa/A. Abdullah

Main demand

In a televised speech to the nation on January 5, PM Hasina accused the detained opposition leader of creating "anarchy and instability" in the country. The opposition party's main demand is to hold fresh elections under a neutral caretaker government. But the provision of a caretaker administration stands abolished since 2011 following the 15th amendment of the constitution.

Last year, the BNP was not able to pressurize the government into engaging in meaningful talks or declaring midterm elections, said Smruti Pattanaik, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

The BNP therefore wants to use the current opportunity "to convey the message that the controversial election is not acceptable," Pattanaik told DW.

Preventing violence?

However, the ruling Awami league seems to be inclined to try to prevent these demonstrations from happening in the first place, stressed Tobias Berger, South Asia expert at the Free University of Berlin.

Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina Regierungschefin
PM Hasina accused the detained opposition leader of creating 'anarchy and instability' in the countryImage: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

"The government's intention is to minimize the prospects for holding large-scale protests in the capital. And I believe, from government's perspective, confining Zia to her office is a prudent decision as political protests frequently lead to violence in Bangladesh," said Berger.

This view is shared by analyst Pattanaik. "The Bangladeshi government appears to have taken the decision to confine Zia fearing violence in Dhaka," she said, pointing out that the country had witnessed massive violence and the killing of innocent civilians caught in the middle in the run-up to the last year's election.

But although the Hasina administration claims it wants to prevent violence and provide preemptive security to Zia, the security lockdown also has the inevitable effect of restricting Zia's movements, underlined Alyssa Ayres, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Change unlikely

It also seems that some ruling party activists have been allowed to stage demonstrations in Dhaka.

"This is a mistake as it appears to favor public expression of one party over another - and it will cause further frustration," Ayres told DW, adding that if there is a protest ban for public safety reasons, then "it should apply evenly to all parties."

Furthermore, as Bangladeshi human rights organizations have documented, the government and activists close to it are also "not entirely innocent of having instigated political violence," Berger pointed out.

In the meantime, PM Hasina has rejected the opposition's call to step down and hold new elections.

According to Ayres, the ruling party believes that the 2014 elections were held in conformance with the Bangladeshi Constitution, and that it was the BNP's decision not to participate in the polls. "The Awami League overwhelmingly dominates the Assembly now, and does not see any reason to call fresh elections," she said.

Analyst Berger believes that the latest anti-government protests organized by the BNP and its allies will not be strong enough to push the government to call for new elections.

He is therefore of the view that the current political situation in Bangladesh is unlikely to change dramatically in the short term.

Resolving the deadlock

On the question of continued political violence, Ayres points out that the main problem in Bangladesh is that parties of all stripes believe that political protests should also shut down the functioning of the economy, and at times be accompanied by violence.

"People would be able to carry out peaceful demonstrations and political protests without threat of violence, if all parties were to reject the use of violence, focus on peaceful demonstrations that do not harm ordinary citizens' daily lives, and if they were to police their youth wings better," the expert argued.

Unruhen in Bangladesch 05.01.2015
All political parties in Bangladesh believe protests should 'at times be accompanied by violence,' says AyresImage: picture-alliance/epa/A. Abdullah

This view is echoed by Pattanaik who believes constructive talks between the ruling and opposition parties are required to resolve the political differences and prevent violence.

Analyst Berger argues that the most important measure to break the deadlock between the two main parties is for them to hold genuine and constructive dialogue. "But currently neither the ruling party nor the opposition is really moving in that direction," Berger underlined.