The political crisis in Bangladesh is getting worse by the day, with no sign of compromise between the government and opposition parties. What does a protracted conflict mean for the future of the country?
On Wednesday, January 14, anti-government protesters torched a passenger bus in the capital Dhaka, burning four people alive. Since the start of the latest demonstrations against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at least 18 people have been killed.
In another incident the day before, Riaz Rahman, an aide to opposition leader Khaleda Zia, survived an assassination attempt. Moreover, hundreds of cars and buses have been set on fire or damaged since the start of the transport blockade, while six trains have been derailed after protesters removed tracks from key inter-city lines.
The international community has asked all stakeholders to refrain from violence and engage in a peaceful dialogue.
On Wednesday, the US State Department condemned the attack on Rahman, saying that "There is no justification for such outrageous and cowardly acts in a democratic Bangladesh."
Political violence is not a new occurrence in the South Asian nation. The country has been witnessing it for decades. The latest episode of political unrest began on January 3 when police banned protests in Dhaka and confined the leader of the country's main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, to her office.
Zia had earlier called on her supporters and 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 BNP boycotted claiming the vote would be rigged.
Opposition to lose more
Henrik Maihack, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's office in Dhaka, says the BNP is fighting for its survival after its strategic mistake of boycotting the national elections one year ago.
"It is slowly losing its relevance in the eyes of many people after being unable to reorganize its rank and file following the boycott of the elections," he told DW, adding that Hasina's government had slowly gained its lost popularity following the elections after ensuring investments in development and facilitating the country's continued economic growth.
Tobias Berger, South Asia expert at the Free University of Berlin, believes continued protests and political turmoil are not in the interest the ruling Awami League party.
"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.
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.
Dialogue – the only way to resolve the crisis
There seems to be no end in sight to the ongoing crisis. Maihack believes that Bangladesh's ordinary citizens and the economy are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the violence. "People are getting increasingly frustrated with the chaos and blame it mostly on opposition activists. Trains and buses are not leaving or are heavily delayed. The security situation in most parts of the country has deteriorated," he pointed out.
Experts say it is difficult to tell how the situation will evolve in the coming days.
"Bangladeshi politics are notoriously difficult to predict. So far there seems to be no solution in sight. It doesn't look like a significant reduction of violence is likely in the next days as both parties seem unwilling to compromise," according to Maihack.
A solution can only come through negotiations between ruling and opposition parties, he added.
Analyst Berger shares this view and 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.