Bangladesh vote thwarted by ‘Battling Begums’; outcome called farce

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina arrives for a news conference in Dhaka on Monday, a day after her incumbent political coalition scored what commentators called a "hollow victory" in an election marred by opposition boycotts, strikes and economic sabotage.
(Rajesh Kumar Singh / Associated Press)

The last time a parliamentary election in Bangladesh drew such low turnout, the lawmakers elected served only 11 days in office before political turmoil brought down the government.

Observers Monday held out little more hope for the lawmakers elected a day earlier in a vote that was marred by an opposition boycott, economic sabotage, ruling party show trials and a stream of invective poured out by the “Battling Begums.”

The begums, or Muslim women of stature, are Prime Minister Sheik Hasina of the ruling Awami League and Khaleda Zia, her archrival who heads the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP.


The women, both scions of political dynasties and bitter enemies who have alternated in power for the last 22 years, conspired to make Sunday’s election one of the most violent, farcical and unrepresentative in the country since 1971 independence, the Daily Star wrote in an editorial.

The Awami League won “a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively,” the newspaper said.

But it hardly had kinder words for Zia and the opposition forces who attempted to derail the vote with strikes and efforts to idle the vital garment industry during the strife-torn campaign period.

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

More than 120 people were killed in the run-up to the vote. Security forces fired on protesting opposition crowds, which blocked transport to the garment factories during the campaign and torched polling places over the weekend to discourage voting. Incumbent Hasina’s alleged manipulations have been blamed for the lopsided outcome, which bodes poorly for the stability and prosperity of the impoverished country, analysts said.

Nearly half of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested because of the BNP boycott, called by Zia in protest of Hasina’s refusal to bow to post-independence tradition and allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election. The ruling party also won a majority of the contested seats, giving the league at least 232 seats and the ability to railroad legislation.

The opposition staged a 48-hour strike over the weekend, helping keep turnout pitifully low in a nation in which 87% flocked to the polls in 2008. The national Election Commission under Hasina’s government contended that about 40% of eligible voters turned out Sunday, while the monitors of the Election Working Group put voter participation at 30%, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

Either figure would make Sunday’s vote the second-worst in recent history. In 1996, ballots were cast by only 26.5% in a contest featuring the same two political forces. In that mirror-image vote, Zia’s coalition won a majority and Hasina’s supporters cried foul. The BNP-led parliament was in power for less than two weeks before being ousted in a coup.

On Monday, Zia’s backers called another 48-hour strike, aimed at pressuring Hasina to scrap the results of Sunday’s vote and allow a fresh poll to be held -- a demand the incumbent and de facto victor rejected.

“They have failed to stop the election. The election has been fair. I’m satisfied,” Hasina told reporters in Dhaka, the Associated Press reported.

Hasina’s government exacerbated already-bitter relations between the two political forces when it established a controversial war crimes tribunal in 2010 to try dozens of “suspects” -- many of them opposition activists -- for incidents alleged to have been committed during the brief 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.

On Dec. 12, the government executed Abdul Quader Mollah, a leading Muslim opposition figure, intensifying what was already a violence-plagued political atmosphere. In November, a Bangladesh court sentenced 152 people to death for alleged participation in a 2009 mutiny by border guards.

Because of the violence ahead of the vote and the incumbent’s refusal to let a neutral caretaker government oversee the polls, neither the European Union nor other Western governments sent observers to monitor the polling.

The United States said it was “disappointed” and called for immediate dialogue to find a way to hold “free, fair, peaceful and credible” elections, the State Department said.

The threat of continued unrest and opposition blockades around textile factories raised the specter of economic distress in a country where the $22-billion garment industry accounts for 80% of exports.

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat