More unrest feared as Bangladesh holds 'farce' vote

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is certain to cement her grip on power this Sunday at elections boycotted by her rivals and shunned by the West after unprecedented bloodshed.

While she says the election will allow her to "eliminate militancy", analysts warn it will spark more unrest after the bloodiest year in Bangladesh's short and troubled history.

A poll in the normally pro-government Dhaka Tribune on Friday showed 77 per cent of voters were against the election without the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The same survey showed the BNP would have won a narrow victory over the president's Awami League but the result is not in doubt as most of the seats are uncontested.

"Fight or Farce?" read the front-page headline in the best-selling Daily Star newspaper, full of pictures of burnt-out buses and victims of petrol bomb attacks.

The turmoil has further dimmed hopes of improving the lives of the 154 million population which make up the world's eighth most populous country, a third of whom are below the poverty line.

In a final election address on Thursday, President Hasina vowed to turn Bangladesh into "a middle-income country" by the turn of the decade and solve its chronic power problems.

But the most impassioned section of her address came when she denounced BNP leader Khaleda Zia who has tried to derail the polls with mass protests.

"She held the people hostage in the name of strikes and blockades," she said, blaming Zia supporters for the deaths of civilians and security forces.

The BNP is one of 21 opposition parties refusing to take part after the president - in power since 2009 - snubbed calls in October to stand aside and let the contest be organised by a neutral caretaker regime.

As a result, candidates who are either Awami League members or allies are running unchallenged in 153 of the 300 seats.

"It's not an election. It's shameless selection," Ms Zia said as she announced a march "to save democracy" that was meant to have taken place last weekend.

But the protest was stopped in its tracks by a massive police operation and Ms Zia is now under de facto house arrest.

The two women's poisonous relationship, which dates back three decades, has torpedoed all attempts at compromise.

When they did talk on the phone in October, their 37-minute conversation ended up in a slanging match and mutual accusations that they had blood on their hands.

More than 140 people have been killed in election violence since October - bringing the overall death toll in political unrest to more than 500, according to local rights activists.

Some of the bloodiest violence has been in clashes between security forces and supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party, several of whose leaders have been sentenced to death for crimes dating back to the 1971 war when the former East Pakistan broke free from Islamabad.

Last year was officially the deadliest year for political violence in a country that has experienced nearly 20 coups.

Many of the victims have been passengers travelling on buses when they were bombed with Molotov cocktails.

Activists from pro-government groups and Islamist factions have attacked each other with machetes and sharpened staves.

Alarmed by the violence and the arrests of thousands of opposition supporters, the United States and the European Union have refused to send observers.

Expressing "disappointment" at the boycotts, the US State Department said last month it would only be prepared to send in observers "in a more conducive environment".

After meeting the BNP leader at her home on Tuesday, US Ambassador Dan Mozena called for an end to violence and denounced the arrests for "the intimidating effect that this has on those who wish to peacefully exercise their democratic rights".

The EU said it would not send observers, saying authorities had not been able "to create the necessary conditions for transparent, inclusive and credible elections".

Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor at Dhaka University, said the polls had lost all credibility given the outcome was not in doubt and warned more violence would flow.

"The violence could further intensify after the polls if there is no attitude of compromise," he said.

"We may see more protests including strikes and blockades called by the opposition and the government could take a more hardline stand." Mr Ahsan H Mansur of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute thinktank said the elections would only exacerbate problems.

"Unfortunately this election is not solving any of our problems, rather it aggravates them," he said.

"Any democratic process should have an opposition. But if the opposition is suppressed, marginalised or even weakened, it will lead to extremism - in our case Islamic militancy."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.