NEW DELHI -- The growing unrest swirling around a boycotted general election in Bangladesh now threatens to undermine the country's position as garment maker to the world.
The election was held under the gaze of 50,000 soldiers deployed by the government. Clashes with opposition protesters looking to disrupt the contest resulted in 18 deaths, Reuters reported. The ruling Awami League pushed the vote through despite a boycott by the opposition, which argued that the fairness of the contest could not be guaranteed.
Excluding the 50 seats reserved for women, 300 seats were up for grabs. But with a majority of districts having only a single Awami League candidate running, more than 150 seats are expected to be won uncontested. A "victory" for the ruling party is all but certain.
Two political parties led by women have vied for power in the South Asian nation since the 1990s: the now-ruling Awami League and the largest opposition force, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The current unrest can be traced back to 2011, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina scrapped a constitutional provision that put a caretaker cabinet in place during elections to ensure neutrality.
The opposition announced that it would not participate in contests under those conditions. Demanding that the prime minister resign and install a caretaker government, protesters employed such extreme measures as homemade firebombs. More than 150 lives were lost in clashes with security forces last year alone.
Post-election, the focus will be on the military. If the opposition steps up the violence, the president may be asked to declare a state of emergency. Or more pressure may be applied on Hasina to call another election.
Bangladesh is the world's second-largest exporter of textiles, after China. There is concern about economic repercussions should the unrest continue. The collapse of a textile factory outside the city of Dhaka last April resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, which the government used as an opportunity to raise the minimum wage for textile workers by 80%.
But skilled labor can still be secured more cheaply than in such neighboring countries as Myanmar and Cambodia. About 170 overseas companies operate textile-related businesses in Bangladesh, and some are already contemplating temporary shutdowns of facilities out of consideration for workers.