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Bangladesh polls: is it a real victory for Hasina?

For two decades, the "Battling Begums" have been at the forefront of this South Asian nation's politics, vying for power and trading insults in a poisonous rivalry.

world Updated: Jan 07, 2014 10:43 IST

For two decades, the "Battling Begums" have been at the forefront of this South Asian nation's politics, vying for power and trading insults in a poisonous rivalry.

Now the longstanding enmity between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, both of whom earn the honorific "begum" for Muslim women of rank, is once again at the heart of the country's latest political crisis.

On Monday, Hasina's ruling Awami League party 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.

The political gridlock plunges Bangladesh deeper into turmoil and economic stagnation, and could lead to more violence in the deeply impoverished country.

Some observers say the rivalry is standing in the way of progress and compromise.

"The economy is declining, democracy is being weakened and Bangladesh's march toward development is faltering," said Hassan Shahriar, a political analyst in Bangladesh. "The latest election and the opposition violence linked to it shows how they could not care less about the people they say they want to serve."

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

Sunday's vote was bloody: At least 18 people were killed as police fired at protesters, and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations. Three more people were killed Monday in lingering pockets of unrest.

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 since last February.

"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 opposition had demanded that Hasina's government resign so a neutral administration could oversee the polls, saying Hasina might rig the election if she stayed in office — which she denied.

Voter turnout was only 22%, 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%.