Bangladesh election could lead to more violence

Bangladesh witnessed high-levels of political violence before today's election. The ruling Awami League won, but an opposition boycott signals tough times ahead.

Bangladeshi police kick a man accused of trying to attack a polling station in the town of Bogra, north of Dhaka. Over 100 polling stations were reported to have been set on fire today.

 The polls closed in Bangladesh's general election with reports of poor turnout and questions about whether the election has increased the chances of deeper political conflict in the country. At least 18 people died in election-related violence today.

Poor turnout was a natural reflection of an election boycott by the country’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and 26 others that saw fewer than half of the parliamentary constituencies contested. The opposition parties had demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and allow for a neutral caretaker government to administer the elections. Her refusal and the ensuing boycott have undermined whatever chance there was that the election could bring her government broad public legitimacy. 

Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, a left-of-center and relatively secular party which has led the government since 2008, will continue in power. The Awami League clinched an absolute majority in the parliament winning 160 out of 300 parliamentary constituencies – of which it won 127 uncontested. Vote counting continued after midnight local time.

Political violence across the south Asian country claimed as many as 500 lives in the 12 months before the election – the highest in the country’s history before any election. Buses were set on fire and civilians suffered attacks from petrol bomb attacks. Blockades enforced by opposition parties paralyzed the country’s national highways and limited exports. The garment industry suffered a loss of at least $3.8 million in December as foreign orders were cancelled.

The country’s economy has been brought to a standstill as a result of continued political violence and disruption of the export supply chain, which primarily produces garments for Western and European retailers such as Walmart, Gap and PVH, which owns brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

The past 20 years have been a period of relative economic success for Bangladesh. The eighth most populous country in the world with about 160 million people reduced the number of citizens living below the poverty line from from 58 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank.

But political turmoil has cut into economic growth. Gross domestic product is predicted to have expanded 6 percent in 2013, down from 6.7 percent in 2011. Economists fear the growth will slow further in the coming year because of the political turmoil persisting in the country.

“An economic recession (in Bangladesh) is already going on. The question is how prolonged this will be. The longer it last the damage will be deeper,” says Asif Saleh, a Dhaka-based official at a development NGO.

Much of the country’s economic progress is attributable to surging garment exports, which increased from $9.2 billion in 2007 to $21.5 billion in 2013. 

Money and politics

Growth in the garment industry has also contributed to the empowerment of women. In the apparel sector roughly 80 percent of the 4 million workers are women, which has created a dramatic shift of the role of women in society as millions of women have shifted from low paid domestic work to factory employment where the monthly minimum wage just increased from $38 to $67.

But economists and factory owners are apprehensive that continued political unrest will make it difficult for the suppliers to afford the higher wage. “The cost of doing business has gone up,” says Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of Center for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank.

The present political turmoil will inevitably affect the country’s economy because of the disruption caused to the country’s exports through continued blockades, Mr. Rahman tells the Monitor.

But Kazi Nabil Ahmed, a first time Awami League Member of Parliament, is optimistic that the political turmoil will subside now that the election is behind the country. “Going forward…any political issues will be resolved through dialogue," he says. 

Senior members of the BNP disagree, arguing that until what they deem are fair elections, protests will continue.

Bangladesh’s opposition parties have promised to continue their protest for “holding credible, participatory election…under a neutral, non-partisan government,” says Osman Farruk, a senior BNP leader. As part of the protest movement, the opposition has called for a fresh 48-hour hartal (general strike) from Monday that would enforce a shutdown of transport, businesses, and schools.

Senior leaders of Bangladesh’s ruling party have said that the present government can call for another election in a short time if needed. “A regular government can stay for five years, can stay for two years, the parliament limit is up to five years. Through any dialogue if any new situation arises, things can be rethought again,” Mr. Ahmed tells Monitor.

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