Bangladesh elections: Where politics and history ignite

Politics and history in Bangladesh make a particularly combustible mix. Indeed, the two have never really been separated. The past decades of the volatile, poor, overcrowded South Asian state define its present arguably more obviously than almost any other state in the region.

In 1947, the British hurriedly split the bulk of their south Asian dominions into India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Pakistan had two wings – an Urdu-speaking West Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and, over 2 250km away, East Pakistan, bordering Burma. The two were never likely to remain united. They spoke different languages, had different religious traditions, followed different leaders.

The split, after years of tension, came in 1971, in a brutal war. West Pakistan lost, despite the aid of local Islamists and despite systematic atrocities. India helped East Pakistan. The charismatic, if flawed, main independence leader was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whose portrait can still be found in government offices all over Bangladesh.

The current government is led by the broadly secular, broadly leftwing Awami League, the party that Sheikh Mujibur helped to found. The opposition is led by the more religiously minded, more business-orientated Bangladesh National party (BNP), founded by the soldier who eventually took power after a period of instability following Sheikh Mujibur's assassination in 1975.

The current prime minister and head of the Awami League is Sheikh Hasina, a daughter of Sheikh Mujibur who survived the massacre of the independence leader's family in 1975.

The leader of the BNP is Khaleda Zia, the widow of the man who eventually replaced Sheikh Mujibur and was assassinated himself in 1981.

Hostile relationship
To say the two women's relationship is hostile is an understatement.

Bangladesh's Islamists – who are electorally marginal, but can nonetheless swing the vote in dozens of crucial constituencies – are allied with the BNP. They have never admitted doing any wrong 42 years ago.

The creation of a tribunal to investigate abuses during the 1971 war was thus good politics for the government. Not only might it remove senior political opponents of the Awami League, but it was also popular. There is a strong desire in Bangladesh, particularly among the young, for punishment of those who committed crimes. It tarnished the BNP by association.

But the real trial of strength between the two parties is yet to come. The run-up to the next election, scheduled for the winter, is likely to be violent. The Awami League says that though incumbents usually lose, it is strong in rural areas and can win. The BNP dismisses this as wishful thinking and points out that recent local government elections have already seen clear wins for it.

The Awami League is unlikely to agree to the key demand of the opposition that a caretaker government take over before the polls.

The BNP will mobilise massive demonstrations with the aim of making the country ungovernable. The personal animosity between the two party leaders means there is little prospect of a deal.

Officials of both parties admit that the continuing confrontation almost certainly means that many will be injured and some will probably die. Clashes this week are, sadly, just the warm-up. – © Guardian News and Media 2013 

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