Violence mars Bangladesh election

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Violence has marred general elections in Bangladesh that were already compromised by a boycott by the main opposition parties.

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Police say at least 18 people were killed in violence during the voting, most of them opposition activists who were shot dead as they tried to disrupt the poll.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party has called a new 48-hour general strike to protest at the killing of its supporters by police during the election.

Kerri Worthington reports.

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Polling stations were firebombed and ballot papers stolen, as thousands of people took part in deadly protests across Bangladesh during the weekend’s general election.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and 20 other parties boycotted the election after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spurned their demands for the polls to be overseen by a neutral caretaker government.

Tens-of-thousands of troops were deployed throughout Bangladesh after about 150 people had been killed in protests held across the country in the lead-up to Sunday’s poll.

This opposition supporter explained his anger.

(Through translation) “We will not allow voting, for as long as democracy is not restored. This is a democratic country. All of us who support democracy, are protesting this election.”

Badiul Alam Majumder from the lobby group Citizens For Good Governance warned ahead of the poll that the opposition’s boycott had escalated tensions.

“This could lead to serious violence. And this could push us to an uncertain future. And we would be in unchartered water.”

With fewer than half of the 300 seats being contested, voters cast ballots in modest numbers amid heavy security in polling that lacked the festivity typical of Bangladeshi elections.

The poll was also described by international observers as flawed.

But these voters in Dhaka, which escaped most of the election day violence, say democracy is too important to waste on boycotts.

(with translation) “I gave my vote to continue the process of democracy and to respect the constitution of Bangladesh.// The opposition once held an election like this themselves. This time they should have taken part for the sake of the country.”

A senior Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader, Osman Farooq, says the people have made a stand by not participating.

He’s scoffed at reports that the election commission was claiming a 60 per cent voter turnout.

“This election commission is absolutely spineless. It’s subservient to the government. It’s a puppet of the political party. So their data is totally not acceptable. We have the data from the various centres, and according to that, so far, only three to five percent votes have been cast.”

The low voter participation could put new pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League to find a compromise with the BNP, and agree to new elections.

Either Sheikh Hasina or BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia has been Prime Minister for all but two of the past 22 years, and the two are bitter rivals.

Sheikh Hasina has spoken of holding talks with the opposition on the conduct of future elections which could lead to another poll.

But the signs are not hopeful, with the government keeping Khaleda Zia under de facto house arrest and other BNP leaders in jail or in hiding.

Analysts warn of more violence after the bloodiest year of unrest since Bangladesh won independence in 1971.

Local rights activists say more than 500 people have been killed in the past year.

These included victims of clashes that erupted after the conviction of leading Islamists for crimes dating back to the 1971 war of independence.

Amnesty International says it’s been monitoring the situation around the Bangladeshi elections.

Researcher Abbas Faiz says it’s time for a government in Bangladesh that respects human rights.

“There has to be a government that is keen to ensure that every aspect of concern about human rights is dealt with in an impartial and independent manner. And unfortunately, so far, successive governments have failed to show that when they are in power they will actually remain independent and impartial in relation to dealing with human rights issues.”