DHAKA, Bangladesh — The run-up to today’s general election in Bangladesh has been marked by bloody street clashes and caustic political vendettas, and the vote threatens to plunge this South Asian country even deeper into crisis.
The opposition and its allies are boycotting the vote, a move that undermines the legitimacy of the election and makes it unlikely the polls will stem a wave of political violence that killed at least 275 people in 2013.
Much of the capital, Dhaka, has been cut off from the rest of the country in recent weeks, as the opposition pressed its demands through general strikes and transportation blockades. Civilians have been caught up in the bloodshed, with activists torching vehicles belonging to motorists who defy the strikes, leading to a growing sense of desperation about the political impasse. Up to 50 schools and other facilities to be used as polling stations were burned down since Friday, TV reports said.
“I want to go to vote, but I am afraid of violence,” said Hazera Begum, a teacher in Dhaka. “If the situation is normal and my neighbors go, I may go.”
The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country of 160 million and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts said.
The opposition demands Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and appoint a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election. But Hasina refused, which means the election will mainly be a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. Awami League candidates are running unchallenged in more than half of the country’s 300 parliamentary constituencies.
Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
“I am fearful that deadly violence could return, people would continue to suffer, political forces with extreme views could emerge in the face of government crackdown and repressive measures,” said Asif Nazrul, a law teacher and analyst. “This election will just pollute our very new democracy by shrinking the space for opposite views.”
The squabbling between Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia — known as the “Battling Begums” — has become a bitter sideshow as both women vie to lead the country. “Begum” is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.
The bickering between the two longtime rivals caused an uproar in October, when the women spoke for the first time in years in an acrimonious telephone call.
“I called you around noon. You didn’t pick up,” Hasina said, according to a transcript published in the Dhaka Tribune, an English-language newspaper.
Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said the prime minister was wrong.
“You have to listen to me first,” Zia snapped.
Last weekend, after authorities barred Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, she told police she would change the name of Gopalganj, Hasina’s home district, if she came to power.
Her outburst was broadcast live on TV while roads around her home were heavily guarded and sand-laden trucks were parked to obstruct her movement.