A Violent History Behind Boycotted Election

Bangladesh votes today, but most of the opposition will stay away and protest

IN the room where Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Bangladesh opposition, meets her advisers hangs a life-size portrait of her father, the country's first prime minister.

The painting is a chilling reminder of the night of Aug. 15, 1975, when middle-ranking Army officers entered this house and went on a killing spree. Left dead were Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; her mother; three brothers; and several other relatives.

In the living room, the clothes worn that night by Sheikh Mujibur, the man many revere as the ''father of the nation,'' are preserved in a display case.

Hasina survived the massacre by being in Germany at the time of the military coup. In 1994, she turned part of this former family home in an exclusive residential area of the capital, Dhaka, into a museum. For her it is a constant reminder of the often-brutal and bloody history of one of the world's poorest countries.

Much of the struggle for political power in Bangladesh is colored by personal animosities and the dark shadow of the past. ''The killers of my family are now contesting these elections,'' Hasina says, referring to the controversial national election being held today. Her Awami League and all the major opposition parties are boycotting it.

More than 50 million Bangladeshis are eligible to vote in this, the most controversial election in the country's 24-year history. But only the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and a score of minor parties are participating. With the vote being held against a background of apathy and intimidation, most independent observers expect the turnout will be not much more than 10 percent.

Hasina's opponent in what has been an increasingly violent struggle for power is Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. Hasina has accused Mrs. Zia's late husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, of involvement in the coup that killed her family and ushered in 16 years of military rule. The prime minister has denied these charges in the past.

Zia's husband was himself assassinated in a military mutiny in 1981. But that has not lessened the animosity that Hasina feels toward Zia. She ''is a product of the military, the wife of a general,'' Hasina says. With the Army deployed around the country for election duty and the likelihood of an escalation of violence after the vote, the government may be reluctant to send troops back to their barracks, Hasina says. Her Awami League has accused Zia's BNP of ''buying out'' minor parties, their candidates, and even voters to try to add legitimacy to what Hasina calls a ''farcical'' election.

The Awami League and its opposition allies resigned from parliament nearly a year ago. The only recourse for them now is to maintain a campaign of strikes and demonstrations in the hope of forcing the government to step down.

''The prime minister must resign, otherwise there cannot be negotiations,'' Hasina says. ''After Feb. 15, the government will be illegal, so how can we talk to them?''

The last election, held in 1991, raised hopes that democracy might develop roots here. But a standoff over whether the Zia-led government should resign in favor of a caretaker administration prior to holding elections has paralyzed the democratic process for nearly two years.

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