Key Party Boycotts Elections in Bangladesh

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Imagine the Republicans or the Democrats announcing a boycott national elections, and staging street protests and blockades aimed at scuttling the vote. That's the situation in Bangladesh, where one of the two major political factions has said it will sit out the elections later this month.


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Bangladesh declared a state of emergency today. The president has just resigned. These are the latest developments in a crisis over elections. Most international election observers have already left. And the U.N. has issued a warning that the situation is deteriorating. It's withdrawing technical support for the election.

NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves is back in Delhi after a recent reporting trip to Bangladesh. Here's what he saw.

PHILIP REEVES: Imagine what would happen in the United States if a few weeks before polling day the Democrats declared they're boycotting the election. That's more or less the equivalent of what's now going on in Bangladesh. Like the U.S., Bangladesh's politics are dominated by two monolithic parties. One of the two, the Awami League and its allies, say they won't be taking part in the elections. The result, says Hanun Habib(ph), a leading analyst of Bangladeshi affairs, is that no one's taking the election seriously.

Mr. HANUN HABIB: Everybody knows, even those who are participating in the election, they also know it for certain that this election is going to be non-credible, totally non-credible. Never before it was such an election held in this country.

REEVES: Even before today's state of emergency, the international community was getting worried. Some analysts believe Bangladesh's democracy, which is only 15 years old, is at risk.

Sheikh HASINA (Awami League): (Speaking foreign language).

REEVES: Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League's leader, has been taking her grievances onto the streets. For weeks, the country has been disrupted by sometimes violent mass protests and strikes. Hundreds have been arrested and dozens killed. At the heart of the dispute is Bangladesh's unique system of installing an interim government three months before election day. The idea of the system is to make sure the elections is not rigged by the ruling party. But Sheikh Hasina and her allies say it's having the opposite effect.

Hasif Nashrual, professor of law at Dhaka University, says the Awami League views the stand-in administration as deeply biased towards their opponents, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who led the last government.

Today, a spokesman for Bangladesh's government said the elections will be postponed without naming a new date. But only a few hours earlier, the interim government was stressing the poll would still go ahead, and most commentators have until now predicted Bangladesh's interim government would probably hold the vote, despite the boycott.

Hanun Habib again.

Mr. HABIB: They seem to be very adamant in holding the election. And they've already ordered the deployment of 60,000 troops all over the country, giving them the very unique sort of a power, that's the (unintelligible) power to arrest any people without warrant anytime.

REEVES: With the state of emergency, the Bangladeshi army is getting increasingly involved. And that's the international community's other big worry. In its short history, Bangladesh has spent years under dictatorial military rule. The Bangladeshi military plays a leading and lucrative role as international peacekeepers and is thought to be keen not to jeopardize that by seizing power. Habib says there's no sign it's taking over at the moment. Though he adds...

Mr. HABIB: But I don't know what will happen tomorrow (unintelligible) if the situation goes volatile.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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