Bangladesh ruling party wins after boycotted vote

AP , Monday 6 Jan 2014

Bangladeshis talk outside a polling station after casting their votes in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. (AP Photo)

Bangladesh's ruling party on Monday won one of the most violent elections in the country's history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that made the results a foregone conclusion.

Although a win by the ruling Awami League was never in doubt, the chaos surrounding Sunday's election plunges Bangladesh deeper into turmoil and economic stagnation, and could lead to more violence in a deeply impoverished country of 160 million.

On Monday, clashes stemming from the election killed three people in Dohar, outside the capital, according to police. At least 18 people were killed Sunday as police fired at protesters and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations.

"We are passing our days in fear and anxiety," said Abdur Rahman, an accountant and resident of the capital, Dhaka, where soldiers patrolled the streets Monday. "These two major parties don't care about anything. Only Allah knows what is in store now for us."

The Awami League won 232 of the 300 elected seats, the Election Commission said Monday, far more than 151 required to form a government. Because of the opposition boycott, about half the seats were uncontested, allowing the Awami League to rack up many victories.

The political feuding in this South Asian nation can be traced back decades, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the opposition leader, vie for power. The country has been ruled by either of these women — both from powerful political families — for nearly 22 years.

The squabbling between the two — known as the "Battling Begums" — is at the heart of much of the political drama. "Begum" is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.

The opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Hasina's government resign so a neutral administration can oversee the polls. They say Hasina might rig the election if she stays in office, a claim she denies.

A group of opposition parties, including the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the election after Hasina refused to heed their demands. Political violence has convulsed the country in recent months as opposition activists staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades to press their demands. Nearly 300 people have been killed in political violence since last February.

The European Union, the US and the British Commonwealth refused to send observers for Sunday's election because they weren't inclusive.

Now, the vote raises pressure on the Bangladesh government to hold talks with the opposition. The turmoil also could lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.

Turnout was only 22 percent, according to election officials who asked that their names not be used because the election is so politically sensitive. In the last election, in 2008, turnout was 87 percent.

Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper described the polls as the deadliest in the country's history, and said in an editorial that the Awami League won "a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively."

But the editorial also was critical of the opposition's role in fueling violence.

"Political parties have the right to boycott elections. They also have the right to motivate people to side with their position. But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election," the newspaper said.

Bangladesh's parliament has 350 seats, with 300 directly elected and another 50 reserved for women who get elected by other chamber members.

As the political situation unravels, Bangladesh also is trying to emerge from suffocating poverty and reinvigorate its $20 billion garment industry. The industry has been rocked by a series of disasters, including a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers. The deaths laid bare the harsh working conditions in an industry that employs 4 million Bangladeshis and provides clothing to major Western retailers.

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