Pre-election violence breaks out in Bangladesh, several dead and perhaps 500 injured
by Nozrul Islam
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) calls for a three-day strike, resulting in clashes with police and government supporters. The BNP wants a caretaker government to prepare the country for new parliamentary elections (January 2014), but the prime minister is opposed. This could favour the possible rise of an Islamist party.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Five people have died, including a 16-year-old boy, and more than 500 injured on the first day of the general strike (hartal) organised by Bangladesh's opposition parties to demand the establishment of a caretaker government to prepare new parliamentary elections (January 2014). The strike, which began yesterday, should be over by tomorrow.

In the meantime, it is causing havoc across the country with explosions, vandalism, road blockades, arson and clashes (even with the police and the army) in at least 19 districts. So far, strikers have damaged 45 vehicles, 22 shops and 2 hospitals. In the cities, many businesses and schools have remained closed.

The recent violence is nothing new. Over the past few months, at least another 250 people have lost their life in similar incidents of political violence.

Khaleda Zia, head of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), called for the strike on 25 October, backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic fundamentalist party.

Her goal is to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, head of the secular-leaning Awami League, and her government to resign in favour of a non-partisan caretaker government to prepare for new elections within 90 days.

In 2011, through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Hasina abolished the requirement to have a non-party caretaker government prepare elections.

After the strike was announced, clashes broke out among political activists (BNP and Jamaat supporters vs Awami supporters) and with police, causing several deaths, all opposition supporters, injuring hundreds.

Following the violence, Hasina tried to avert the strike by inviting Zia to dinner. The meeting did not take place, but the two talked on the phone for 40 minutes, the first contact between the leaders in over a decade, to little avail.

Hasina refused to resign, proposing instead a commission with representatives from every political party, which she would chair in alternative to the caretaker government.

Zia (a two-time former prime minister) called the offer "illegal", reiterating that the strike would go ahead.

In almost 20 years, Bangladeshi politics have been plagued by the bitter rivalry between Hasina and Zia, the "fighting begums". Begum is an honorific for high-ranking Muslim women.

The standoff between the two leaders is likely to have a serious impact on ordinary Bangladeshi. In fact, the situation seems already too tense for an election without a non-partisan government.

The situation is very much like that of 2007-08, when a state of emergency was imposed under a military-backed caretaker government. At that time and for almost two years, the country was in a deadlock, with civil and political rights suspended.

Still, the current alliance between the BNP and the Jamaat is raising concerns, especially since the rampant corruption in the Awami League could hand a victory to the Nationalist Party, opening the doors of power to Islamic fundamentalists.

(Sumon Corraya contributed to this article)