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Deadly polls

Debarati GuhaJanuary 5, 2014

Polls in Bangladesh closed amid violent and deadly clashes between police and opposition supporters. In an election questioned over its legitimacy, the ruling Awami League have won a sweeping victory, as expected.

Bangladesch Parlamentswahlen Gewalt in Rajshahi
Image: Reuters

There were no usual celebrations, not even an opposition party on view to admit defeat. More than 52 percent of the voters did not have a chance to vote due to an opposition boycott. Such was the 10th general election of Bangladesh on January 5, which saw a series of violent clashes across the country between the security forces and protesters leading to the deaths of at least 18 people.

The ruling Awami League (AL) named it "an election to uphold the values of the constitution" while the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) termed it a "scandalous farce." At the end of the day the election "without an opposition" failed to win over the people and deteriorated into an "undemocratic exercise," according to Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, an expert on international relations.

Voting started as scheduled at around 8:00 am and ended at 16:00 pm (local time). But the fear of violence and an absence of a strong opposition left the polling booths deserted. Of the 37 registered political parties, only the Awami League and 11 other parties on its side of the political divide participated. BNP and 24 other opposition parties did not contest the poll. This meant that there was no contest in 153 of a total of 300 constituencies. So many first-time voters could not even casts their votes. And those who did come to vote faced unprecedented chaos and rioting. Not surprisingly, turnout among the country's 92 million voters was low.

Dr. Nazmul Ahsan, Chairman of the National Election Observation Council told DW, "It was expected that the turnout would be thin. This was a different kind of election. On one hand it was one sided, on the other, it came after weeks of long strikes and the utmost political turmoil."

Members of the the election commission remove election material after hearing news of a possible attack on polling booths by protesters in Bogra January 5, 2014. Bangladesh's ruling Awami League was poised on Sunday to win a violence-plagued parliamentary election whose outcome was never in doubt after a boycott by the main opposition party. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Here, members of the the election commission remove poll material after hearing about a possible attackImage: Reuters

Massive violence

According to DW's Dhaka correspondents Harun Ur Rashid Swapan and Samir Kumar Dey, scores of polling stations in Rangpur, Bogra, Satkhira, Chittagong, Pabna and Gaibandha were torched and more than 200 were attacked late Sunday. All in all, violent clashes between opposition activists and the police led to the deaths of at least 18 people across Bangladesh.

In the opposition stronghold of Bogra, a police official told AFP, "We have seen thousands of protesters attack polling booths and our personnel with Molotov cocktails at a number of locations."

In Parbatipur, in the north, police official Mokbul Hossain added, "We were forced to open fire after thousands of protesters attacked us with guns and small bombs."

Police also used firearms to prevent a violent mob from taking over a polling station in the northern Rangpur district, killing two. In Nilphamari district, police also fired on about two dozen protesters. Two people were killed.

The violence clearly prevented voters from going to the polls. Holi Cresent School and College - a polling station in Dhaka's Mirpur district, recorded only 173 ballots out of 2,153 registered voters in the first few hours of polling, while another polling station in the same district had recorded only 25 ballots out of 24,000 registered voters in a similar timeframe.

Bangladesh ballot

An automatic victory

Though the final results are expected to come in during the early hours of Monday morning, incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League are expected to coast to an easy victory, seeing as it has a majority of seats in the new parliament on the strength of uncontested seats alone. Hasina had repeatedly rejected opposition demands for her to step down and set up a neutral government to oversee the poll - a measure that had been practiced from 1991 until 2010.

Moeen Khan of BNP told the news agency DPA, "It was a dead election in which most of the ruling party candidates are being elected unopposed. The government will be held responsible for conducting such a farcical election."

Though the Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad insists that it was a "free and fair" election, the acting secretary general of BNP Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir claims that "with such a meaningless, unwanted and foolish election, the people of Bangladesh have been deprived and dishonored."

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia - who are bitter political enemies - have alternated from government to opposition for most of the past two decades.

What is next?

With the European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth refusing to send election observers, the international legitimacy of the poll is in doubt. Only India and Bhutan sent monitors to Bangladesh. Against this background mounting pressure from the international community is to be expected. There is already speculation about a new election with all the parties participating.

Bangladeshi police detain a suspect following an attack on a polling station in the northern town of Bogra on January 5, 2014. Protestors firebombed polling stations and attacked police as Bangladesh went ahead with a violence-plagued election boycotted by the opposition. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
At least 18 people died in clashes on election dayImage: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

But such a move would require a compromise between the Awami League and the BNP. According to Dr. Binayak Sen, a senior research scholar from Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), "Such talks have to be not only about electoral modalities, but also have to include the question of political ideology and the character of the country as a whole, i.e. fundamental questions on secularism, the future of Jamaat-e-Islami as well as the War Crime Tribunal. These questions must be answered."

That appears to be a tall order for the next few weeks.