In Dhaka, the Roadblocks to Democracy Are Roadblocks

As the Election Looms in Bangladesh, Blockades Are More Than a Metaphor for the Obstacles Facing Voters

A tight crowd of men and women, some sitting down, some standing. Political banners and pictures are seen above the people.

Journalist and development executive Saykot Kabir Shayok writes about widespread frustration in Bangladesh, where the political opposition is putting up blockades on highways and refusing to field candidates. Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party form a human chain in Dhaka. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

It’s election season in Bangladesh—the roads are closed, vehicles are burning, and the threat of violence is close.

As I write these sentences, the country’s chief opposition party—the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—is observing the 10th round of blockades protesting the ruling Awami League’s insistence on running the next election itself.

The idea of a continuous blockade may invoke images of a medieval warlord hoping to lay siege to an opponent’s fortress. Bangladesh’s modern blockades are often described in international media as shutdowns of passenger and freight transportation routes that bring inter-city movement to a crawl, especially in and out of Chattogram and Dhaka. In reality, rarely do you see large objects like poles or vehicles blocking roads and highways. Instead, the blockades more often take the form of assailants attacking, damaging, or setting fire to the vehicles that dare to traverse the routes whose closures have been announced.

When the Awami government announced a new election schedule, with balloting concluding on January 8, the BNP opposition declared that these blockades would be increased to four days a week, with only weekends and Tuesdays off. The blockades will continue, the opposition says, until the ruling party agrees to install a neutral “caretaker government” to administer the upcoming election.

I am a resident of Dhaka and worked in the media industry for half a decade. While handling news for some of the leading media outlets of the country, I saw the BNP and its allies enact its blockade strategy regularly. It does have an impact. Meetings and most outdoor activities have been shifted to only Tuesdays and weekends, adjusting to the blockade schedule.

Ordinary citizens of Bangladesh are rarely attacked, and don’t participate in the blockades. So the primary feeling about the blockades is not fear but annoyance, with the uncertainty and schedule juggling that blockades require. As a precaution, the public and private agencies often move activities to minimize the risk of violence or arson on the roads. People might suddenly find they have to work from home or rearrange their routine.

The blockades rarely penetrate the city in Dhaka. Long-distance travelers and merchants are much more affected by the threats. The blockades also produce a feeling that the opposition, by relying on these threats, are missing opportunities to build solidarity.

What’s perhaps most frustrating is the BNP’s choice of demands. The party has only been vocal about two: a neutral national election, and the release from prison of its chairperson, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. But there are many other issues that the BNP could capitalize on that feel more urgent to voters.

The only way out of this stalemate, and the only way to temper the fear of violence, is a meaningful dialogue between the major political parties that will allow for the emergence of political common sense.

For example, the prices of basic commodities in Bangladesh have been skyrocketing for almost two years. The BNP and other opposition parties could have gone to the streets to gain larger public support or released detailed plans for stopping the price spikes. Instead, they offer more blockades and put out statements bashing the government.

As the election approaches, little has changed. The BNP is focused on security, so that no more of its officials or allies are “snatched away” for contesting elections. The party also wants to continue agitating and seeking international support for non-electoral challenges to the government, optimistic that international pressure will force the ruling party to give in on its demand for a caretaker government and a neutral election. So far, it’s not working.

Additionally, there is no indication that the BNP will even bother to compete in the election. They are vehement about not running any candidates and even expelling those party members who dared to stand as independent candidates in defiance of central orders.

This lack of competitive zeal is splitting the opposition. Some of those who were initially involved in the BNP’s anti-government opposition have withdrawn from the alliance and opted to participate in the election by running candidates. That could help the government claim its election is legitimate.

To be fair, the BNP has no reason to trust the current government to set up a fair election. Reports of mass arrests and police raids of opposition party members’ homes have raised serious concerns about violence and intimidation. The BNP claims that since October 2023, over 9,000 activists have been arrested countrywide in an effort to keep the BNP out of power. This is where their outcry for a caretaker government stems from.

But, at the same time, the BNP also faces criticism from the government and public for its blockades, which have also raised concerns about political violence. To enforce the blockade, assailants have set ablaze at least 20 buses in the past two months. Recently, even a train coach in the capital has been set on fire, killing four.

Political violence is deeply rooted in the election culture of Bangladesh as a means to seize power.

In 2006, when the BNP was in power—and was adamant about arranging the year’s national election—the Awami-led opposition started a nationwide protest called the Logi Boitha Movement (or Boat Hook and Oar Movement, because many rally participants waved boats hooks and oars). They alleged that pro-BNP advisors planned to rig the results in favor of the BNP. Clashes erupted across the country among the supporters of the two factions, killing 40 people in a single month.  The violence and political stalemate led to a military-backed “caretaker government” seizing power on January 11, 2007. They remained in power until the 2009 general elections.

Every election since has been violent. According to media reports, more than 500 people died in 2013 due to political violence. In 2018, at least 15 people died across the country on election day alone in clashes. According to estimations by human rights groups, at least 38 people died in political violence in the first six months of 2023.

When I look back to the elections of 2013 and 2018, the thing I vividly remember, more than any candidate or campaign, is the risk of attack on public transport. 2023’s campaign season has felt like a return to those days. At least two lives have already been lost to bus fires in the past two months and there are risks of further escalation.

The Awami League government and the BNP opposition are blaming each other for the fires, each claiming the other is using arson to destabilize the political situation. The Awami League government claims that the opposition wants to wage terror and thwart a free election; the BNP denies any affiliation with the attacks and claims the government has staged them in a bid to hurt the BNP’s image.

Irrespective of which party is responsible, I fear that the level of such violence will increase manifold in the upcoming elections. The government is not committed to holding fair elections. And the absence of the BNP will undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

The only way out of this stalemate, and the only way to temper the fear of violence, is a meaningful dialogue between the major political parties that will allow for the emergence of political common sense. The government must gain the trust of other political groups and hold a truly fair election. And the opposition—BNP and like-minded parties—should keep in mind that they cannot simply reject elections. They, too, need the support of the public, or their movement will fail.

One way to start would be to stop the blockades.


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