Four Things You Need to Know About the Chaos In Bangladesh

Two general strikes in two weeks and hundreds dead so far this year. Just what is going on?

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Bangladeshi police officials stand in a line as striking garment workers throw stones during a protest in Narayanganj on Sep. 26, 2013

Two opposition-enforced 60-hour general strikes in the last two weeks have paralyzed life and destabilized the economy of this South Asian nation of 150 million people. The estimated annual average cost of general strikes, or hartals as they are called in Bangladesh, is between 3 percent and 4 percent of the country’s $110 billion gross domestic product (GDP) reports the Daily Star. Political violence has also spiraled out of control, with around 322 people killed in political clashes this year — the highest death toll outside a conflict zone — according to Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar. Here’s a quick read on why this is happening.

1. The crisis has been brewing since June 2011, when the government — led by the center-left, secular-democratic Awami League — scrapped a decades-old constitutional provision allowing for a caretaker system of government in the run-up to elections. Under that provision, neutral administrators would run things while the people chose their next leaders. The opposition, a centrist-right 18-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has been demanding that the provision be restored.

2. The crisis got really bad last month, when Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister and leader of the Awami league, refused to step down by October 24 — a deadline set by the opposition — and make way for a caretaker government. The BNP had threatened bloody countrywide strikes if their demand for a caretaker government was not met. They also threatened to boycott the elections in January.

3. There’s a bitter rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister and leader of the BNP. Their rivalry has dominated Bangladeshi politics for decades and has kept them away from negotiation tables. Hasina’s attempts at talks have been rejected twice by Zia. The Battling Begums — as Zia and Hasina are nicknamed — have alternated as prime ministers of the country but have rarely spoken to each other since 1990, when they jointly toppled military ruler General Ershad.

4. Bangladesh has a long history of pre-election violence. In 1996, polls had to be conducted twice in the space of a few months because of political violence between BNP and League supporters. In 2007, a League boycott, and clashes between rival party supporters, led to military intervention.