General election held in January 5, 2014 is the most violent and hostile election in Bangladesh history, according to research published by influential American organization USIP- United States Institutes of Peace. The report was published based on a case study of 5 of the most volatile and conflicting electoral system in the world. The five countries are Honduras, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malawi and Moldova.
Bangladesh was the most violent election examined in this study, and presents a compelling case for the use of election violence prevention tools to mitigate violence.
Bangladesh’s current democratic era has been marked by violence, successive political crises, and turbulent elections. The January 2014 election was the most violent in the country’s history. The opposition political party and its allies boycotted the poll, which they enforced with beatings, murders, and Molotov cocktails hurled at buses—incinerating those inside. The ruling party responded to the unrest through the partisan army and police, which often indiscriminately fired into crowds of protestors. At least 400 were killed, including voters, party activists, election officials, and security personnel, in the months before, during, and weeks after the election. Election-related violence was far more severe than in previous parliamentary contests.
Political violence is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Assassinations, coups, riots, intimidation, harassment, and corruption pervade the country’s politics. Important contextual vulnerabilities like power centralization and social division contribute to the risk of election-related violence, but the 2014 election was unique both in violence levels and prevention weakness. The violence and tension far predated the official electoral cycle.
A series of controversial decisions by the ruling Awami League since its win in 2008 provoked a slow escalation of violence. Yet despite these concerns, Bangladesh’s election violence could have been mitigated or even prevented. Bangladesh’s historically high election violence levels are explained by two factors: first, the actions of the Awami League, which aggressively sought to consolidate its power and provoked a violent backlash from opposition parties; and second, the poor implementation of prevalent election violence prevention models, which were weaker than in past elections. Although deficient violence-prevention tools cannot solely explain Bangladesh’s increased election violence, their weakness facilitated, and in some cases, even exacerbated tension and violent conflict.
The report mentioned that Bangladesh has a highly centralized political system (First-Past-The-Post) that rewards winners with access to virtually complete power while entirely excluding losers. Demographically, the political importance of the Hindu minority (9% of population) is controversial in an increasingly conservative Islamic-majority country. Politically, Hindus gravitate toward the secular Awami League, making them a target for opposition parties. Both of these factors contribute to and shape the risk environment for electoral violence in Bangladesh.