Election divisions push Bangladesh towards the brink

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The funeral of a man who died after being injured by a petrol bomb thrown by opposition party activists in Dhaka (04 December 2013)Image source, AP
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Political violence has escalated since the opposition began protesting against the elections

Bangladesh is entering a new phase of violence and uncertainty triggered by the opposition's objections to elections due to be held on 5 January. In recent days the country has been paralysed by violent strikes and transport blockades. The BBC's Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa in Dhaka says that there is now increasing speculation that a state of emergency may be declared to pull the country back from the brink.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has called for all-out agitation to bring down the interim government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The 5 January date was set by the Election Commission, citing the constitutional necessity to hold the vote before the parliamentary term expires on 24 January.

During a similar crisis in 2007, the military stepped in and installed a caretaker government to carry out political reforms and address corruption.

They failed in that task, but managed to steer the country back to constitutional rule through largely free and fair elections. Ms Hasina's centre-left Awami League came to power in 2009 through a landslide victory.

Fragile economy

The BNP and its main coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami want a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls. They say a government headed by Ms Hasina would rig the elections.

Image source, AFP
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The opposition has been accused of sabotaging railway tracks causing trains to crash

The public mood still favours the BNP's position that the crisis was created by the prime minister, and her removal from office would pave the way for a compromise.

Increasingly though, there is concern about the tactics being used by BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami in carrying out their agitation.

Since 25 October they have held general strikes and road-rail blockades, leading to widespread violence and hitting the economy hard.

Dozens of vehicles have been burned or damaged by blockade supporters on the only highway linking the port city of Chittagong with the capital Dhaka. The all-important garments industry, which accounts for nearly 80% of Bangladesh's exports, has been unable to make shipments for a week.

''If the current crisis continues for another month, then the whole economy will stumble to a halt and it will be very difficult to recover from it,'' said Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, a major garments exporting firm.

'Creating terror'

Unlike previous political movements, there are no mass protests or rallies in the capital or other major cities. Instead, the tactics appear to rely heavily on guerrilla-style attacks on public transport, which are taking a heavy toll on ordinary passengers and drivers.

Image source, AFP
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The big question is whether the military top brass will remain united and continue to back the prime minister

Political analysts are worried this is setting a dangerous precedent.

''The language of democracy has been replaced with undemocratic language. This movement is designed to create terror,'' says Professor MM Akash of Dhaka University, who is also a senior leader in the Communist Party.

At least 40 people have been killed in attacks by protesters as well as in clashes with the police since 26 November. Rail tracks have been uprooted in many places - derailments have caused at least three deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Although BNP chief Khaleda Zia has sought to distance her party from the worst of the violence - such as setting bus passengers on fire - other leaders of her party are less apologetic.

'Unacceptable conditions'

Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, a former army officer and diplomat who is a key adviser to Ms Zia, likened the current crisis to a war.

Image source, AP
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The disruption has brought economic activity in Dhaka and other cities to a standstill

''Where in the world do you see clean wars?'' Mr Chowdhury asked in an interview with the BBC's Bengali service.

''Aren't the Western powers killing innocent men, women and children in their war in Afghanistan?'' he asked.

Mr Chowdhury said that the crisis had arisen because the government was trying to impose unacceptable election conditions on the people.

Bangladesh's development partners such as the US and the EU are worried that an election without the BNP would only make matters worse. They have called for the two parties to reach a compromise so that an "inclusive election" can take place.

The 1996 constitution provided for a neutral caretaker government, headed by a retired chief justice, to oversee polls within three months of the dissolution of parliament.

But the Awami League argues that this provision has been made redundant by a High Court ruling in 2010 - and that it is now acceptable for polls to be held with the incumbent government as the interim administration.

The government is determined - at least in public - to go ahead with the vote on the scheduled date, which many fear might trigger even worse violence.

But in private they are not ruling out rescheduling the polls, or the idea of imposing a state of emergency to arrest the slide towards anarchy.

If the government chooses to declare an emergency and bring in the army to restore order, the elections will most likely be postponed indefinitely. Under current constitutional provisions, Sheikh Hasina would continue to be prime minister until the vote is held.

The big question is whether the military top brass will remain united and continue to back her, as they are doing now. If elections turn out to be particularly bloody, or if an emergency fails to pacify the agitators, calls for the military to take over may grow louder.

Optimists in Dhaka feel Bangladesh's friends, such as neighbouring India and the United Nations, may be able to mediate a compromise to pave the way for inclusive elections later in January.

But few share such optimism.

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