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Politics

Power struggle ahead of Bangladesh elections

As election day nears, the situation in Bangladesh is becoming increasingly volatile. Government plans for an all-party government to oversee the poll have been met by the opposition with general strikes and violence.

A truck driver's willingness to work ended up costing him his life. The man from the southern port city of Chittagong was killed because he refused to join a strike, according to the police. Last October, Bangladesh's largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), called for a nationwide general strike which lasted for weeks and turned violent in some parts of the country. All over the country, BNP supporters took to the streets, torched dozens of cars and clashed with police forces. More than 20 people were killed. On November 9, three BNP leaders were taken into custody on allegations of instigating violence.

"The situation is very tense at the moment," says Imtiaz Ahmed, professor for International Relations at the University of Dhaka. The reason: The ruling Awami League (AL) and the BNP - led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia - disagree on the structure of an interim government in charge of overseeing the elections set to be held before the end of January. The government's term expires on January 24.

Political divide

The opposition considers the current administration to be "illegal" and demands for the poll to be prepared by a non-partisan caretaker government.

Smoke rises as a bus burns on a street after a nationwide strike was called, in Dhaka November 9, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

There were outburts of violence in some parts of the country during the general strike

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly stated that the law requiring the establishment of such a government before elections was scrapped, as it had enabled the military to intervene and take over power. As a compromise, Hasina has suggested forming an "all-party" interim government over which she would preside.

But, according to Ahmed, the BNP rejects the prime minister's plan. The expert says the opposition doesn't trust the government, as they feel that state bodies in Bangladesh - including the administration, the police force and the judiciary - have become partisan.

The political landscape in the South Asian Nation appears to be shaped by the seemingly irreconcilable enmity between Hasina and Zia, who have been voted alternatively to power for decades. "Regardless of which party is in office, it marginalizes the opposition, which, in turn, tries to use all the tools at its disposal to assert itself against the government," said Jasmin Lorch, South Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Protestors take to the streets

Through mass demonstrations, violent clashes and general strikes, opposition parties have made clear their anger at the government's plans. "The opposition wants to flex their muscles and that is the political culture Bangladesh. However, they can't do that in parliament, so the only place they can do it is on the streets," said Ahmed.

"The ruling party is now waiting to see how much strength, how much muscle power the BNP has. If they are really capable of paralyzing public life in Bangladesh and generating all this violence, then the AL will be willingto reach a compromise," he added.

Police surround Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) standing committee members MK Anwar(L), Rafiqul Islam Mia (C) and Moudud Ahmed after they left a court following a hearing in Dhaka November 9, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

BNP members had to attend a court hearing on allegations of instigating violence

Meanwhile, all cabinet ministers have resigned in order to facilitate the formation of the all-party interim government. Ahmed hopes the opposition will reach a compromise in the end. But in order to achieve this, he adds, it is crucial that the key issue regarding who should preside over this government is resolved by mutual agreement.

"Should the ruling party continue to lead the caretaker administration, then the violence will escalate," Ahmed told DW, adding that PM Hasina might then risk the possibility of a military intervention. "The situation would then become much more chaotic."

A polarized society

The government, which was elected in late 2008 by a large majority, has now lost much of its support among voters. The number of Bangladeshis who perceive the country to be on the right track has fallen from 70 percent four years ago to around 40 percent now. The BNP is now ahead in many of the constituencies that the ruling party won in the last elections, according to the latest polls.

"The current government has had some successes; it has improved the country's economy and people's living conditions. There have also been advancements in the areas of education and public health," says Dirk Saam, a Bangladesh expert at development cooperation organization NETZ.

In this combination of pictures created on December 23, 2008, Bangladesh's last prime minister Khaleda Zia (L) and last opposition leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed (R) gesture during their respective political rallies in Dhaka on December 21, 2005 and February 5, 2006.(Photo: AFP)

Khaleda Zia (L)und Sheikh Hasina (R) have been political rivals for decades

However, several fire disasters, the collapse of a garment factory which killed more than a thousand people as well as strikes and protests over working conditions and minimum wages in the textile industry have contributed to the government's woes and drawn criticism.

Furthermore, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), set up by Hasina at the request of a majority of the population to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, has led to serious social upheaval. The verdicts being delivered by the court have led to violent protests and a polarization of society along religious lines.

The main defendants in these trials belong to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party and are accused of committing crimes against humanity during the war. At the request of bloggers and online activists, protests were organized at Dhaka's Shahbag Square during the summer.

The demonstrators demanded death sentences for those convicted by the ICT and a clear separation of state and religion. The Islamists reacted angrily, portraying the Shahbag activists as enemies of Islam.

"This has lead to a big controversy," Saam explained. "The ruling Awami League had to show that it is opposed to acts that hurt Muslims' religious sentiments. Therefore, bloggers were accused by the Islamists as atheists and were arrested.

Wish for change

There is more behind the protests of the so-called Shahbag Movement than merely a reaction to the ICT verdicts, says the Bangladesh expert. "The movement should also be understood as a symptom of dissatisfaction with the existing political power structures. There were many business people, academics and doctors among the protestors. They all call for a political culture in which professional success doesn't come with abuse of office, corruption and political party affiliation."

An agreement between the government and the opposition on how to set up a transitional government would be an important first step towards establishing such a political culture, say experts.