Bangladesh unrest casts dark shadow over upcoming elections

Bangladesh unrest casts dark shadow over upcoming elections

Tensions are running high in Bangladesh after two opposition activists were killed on Tuesday amid widespread anti-government protests in recent days.  

Police said violence broke out in multiple cities and towns as members of the principal opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist party, demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down from power ahead of parliamentary elections due by the end of January.

Protesters set fire to vehicles, blocked roads and clashed with security forces, hurling petrol bombs and pelting officers with rocks, police said. Supporters of the ruling Awami League party were also seen engaging in clashes with opposition activists, local media reported.

Motorists watch as Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists set fire on a road as they attempt to block a highway during clashes with the police in Araihazar, some 40km from DhakaMotorists watch as Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists set fire on a road as they attempt to block a highway during clashes with the police in Araihazar, some 40km from Dhaka
The violent clashes in recent days have sparked international concernImage: Munir uz Zaman/AFP
The government and the opposition blamed each other for inciting the violence.

The BNP said police have arrested nearly 2,300 of its activists since the October 28 protest demanding Hasina's resignation. It claimed that over half a dozen opposition supporters have been killed so far.

Authorities say some of the arrests are linked to the death of a policeman in protests on Saturday.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement on Tuesday saying that it was deeply concerned by the recent developments in Bangladesh.

Seven countries including the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and Japan have urged both the government and the opposition to "exercise restraint, eschew violence and work together" for a free and fair vote.

United States Ambassador Peter Haas called on all sides to hold talks in a bid to ensure "free, fair and peaceful elections," the Dhaka Tribune newspaper reported.

But PM Hasina rejected the call.

She is seeking her fourth straight five-year term in office and has repeatedly ruled out handing power to a caretaker government. Hasina has also accused the BNP of "terrorism and hooliganism."

"Elections will happen like it happens in countries such as Canada and India ... like it happened in 2018 in Bangladesh," she told a press conference on Tuesday, Reuters news agency reported. "Routine government work will not stop."

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the current situation is a cause for concern for the international community.

"Rapidly escalating political instability — increasing protests followed by arrests and more anger and threats of more protests — will not ease the concerns of the international community."

Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University, shares a similar view.

"Considering that the chasm between the opposition and the government has grown so much and increasing violence is going to destabilize the situation and disrupt the already fragile economy, the international community should take a proactive role," Riaz told DW.

Will third-party mediation work?
Kugelman, however, cast doubt on whether a third-party mediation would work.

"The parties that would likely be most willing to mediate — essentially countries from the West — would not be acceptable to Dhaka because it believes they are biased toward the opposition," he pointed out. 

"The parties that Dhaka may be willing to see as mediators — such as New Delhi — would likely be seen by the opposition as biased toward the government," he added. 

"That said, given how the political environment is becoming increasingly unstable, with serious risks of violence in the period leading to the election, and given how serious the polarization between the government and opposition is at this point, a de-escalatory mechanism from the outside wouldn't be a bad idea."

What's the issue about the caretaker government?
Hasina's ruling Awami League party has been accused of rigging the last two elections in 2014 and 2018 and of cracking down on thousands of opposition activists during her nearly 15-year rule since 2009.

Both elections were held while Hasina was in power, which the opposition parties consider problematic.

Bangladesh had a "caretaker" system in place prior to 2011, and it was intended to prevent ruling parties from electoral manipulation and misconduct.

Under that system, when an elected government finished its five-year mandate, a caretaker administration — consisting of civil society representatives — would take control of state institutions for three months and hold elections.

Non-partisan interim administrations conducted general elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008, and the polls were considered free, fair, and inclusive by domestic and international observers.

But the Awami League scrapped the system in 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that the provision was unconstitutional as it violated principles of representative democracy.

"The main obstacle to holding a free, fair, and inclusive election is the absence of a provision to have a neutral government during the election time; until a way is found to address this issue, I don't think a fair election is possible," Riaz said.

Kugelman also echoed a similar opinion.

"It's not an easy or immediate-term fix. The incentive structures need to be reconfigured in a way that the entire political class — not just the ruling party — believes that its interests are best served by backing free and fair elections and other key democratic principles," he said.

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