At least 18 people were killed in elections in Bangladesh on Jan. 5, in a bloody culmination to months of violent protest.
With an opposition-led boycott of the vote leaving 153 out of 300 parliament seats uncontested, the foregone conclusion that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League (AL) would remain in power translated into an abysmal voter turnout of some 20%, according to early reports.
News of widespread violence on voting day kept many voters away. Though the streets of the capital city of Dhaka remained relatively quiet on Sunday, dozens of voting booths around the country were reportedly set on fire over the weekend. Other voters were simply disillusioned with the whole process. “It’s a very bad situation,” said Mohammed Abdul Salam, a businessman in Dhaka, who did not vote. “We have no choice.”
An opposition alliance, led by former PM Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP), has bitterly opposed the government’s 2011 scrapping of a longstanding protocol of having a neutral caretaker government oversee general elections. Several parties called for a boycott of the Jan. 5 vote in protest, with at least 120 people killed in pre-election violence according to Human Rights Watch.
Inside the country’s largest burn unit at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, wards have been packed with victims of the recent days of unrest. Mohammed Lakon, a 45-year -old vegetable seller from nearby Gazipur, was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 2 with burns covering his body from head to waist. According to family members at his side, Lakon had no involvement in politics and had no idea who threw the fire bomb that struck him on the head before covering him in burning petrol.
Despite this charged atmosphere, the government pushed ahead with the polls. As predicted, early results showed an easy ‘win’ for the Awami League. The results, however, bear little reflection of popular will, and the opposition hopes that the feeble mandate the government is left with will force Hasina to agree to its terms for another election in the near future.
It is unclear how or when the two sides will reach an agreement. Gowher Rizvi, the Prime Minister’s international affairs adviser, suggested on polling day that new elections would be held soon. But until they are, the political standoff seems doomed to continue. The BNP has called for a 48-hour strike to begin on Jan. 6, according to local media.
Political foes Hasina and Zia have been swapping power in Bangladesh since the 1990s, and this bloody election is seen by many as part of the continuum of their long and destructive rivalry. Their enmity has cast a long shadow over many of the laudable gains the crowded South Asian nation has made in recent years, including reducing poverty and the infant mortality rate and improving immunization coverage, among other achievements.
“Bangladesh is heading into the new year with violence at the polls and human rights protections missing in action,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a Jan. 4 statement. “The international community should remind Bangladesh that the world is watching and that the deteriorating rights climate cannot continue.”
—With reporting by Joseph Allchin / Dhaka