The first few months of 2015 have been fascinating for the keen political campaign observer. From the launch of the formal campaign season in the UK, to the impressive national elections in Nigeria, to the early-in-the-cycle declarations of three presidential candidates in the United States, there has been no shortage of election news. However, perhaps the most novel political tactic to appear has in fact received little attention from the ever-attentive 24-hour news cycle. For the first three months of 2015, Bangladesh experienced a massive slowdown in trade and transportation as a result of a nationwide transport blockade. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), initiated the blockade in an attempt to oust the governing Awami League coalition led by her rival Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Strangely enough, the rather bizarre use of transport as a form of political protest did not begin with Ms Zia’s national blockade. The spiral of events that led to the strike actually started with the appearance of large sand-filled lorries in Dhaka in early January. The brightly painted lorries appeared in the days leading up to 5 January and seem have been arranged by the governing Awami League coalition. The trucks were used to physically block Ms Zia and her supporters from leaving their party headquarters that same day, in an attempt to quite literally suppress anticipated BNP protests.
The lorries were complemented by a large contingent of police and security forces outside the BNP office in Dhaka’s wealthy Gulshan neighbourhood. The lorries and police forces were supposedly deployed to prevent violent clashes, but they effectively served to keep the leadership from leaving the offices or supporters from entering them, thereby crippling the organisational structure behind the protests. It was in this tense atmosphere that Ms Zia, physically barricaded inside her party offices, decided to call for the transport blockade.
The blockade began on 6 January 2015, and caused widespread disruption across the country throughout the month of January. Although the government promised security for transport vehicles, a number of attacks against buses and lorries in early February succeeded in causing fear and panic to spread among transport workers. On 2 February at least 7 people were killed when unknown assailants firebombed a bus travelling to the capital. Although the BNP would like to believe that Bangladeshis were voluntarily participating in the strike, in reality fear seems to have been the primary enforcer behind the blockade. The 2 February attack was widely covered in both local and international media, and stories of the victims, which included two young children, spread quickly through the country.
Although fear persisted among the population for some time, the political tension eventually started to dissipate as attention turned elsewhere. As a result, the police presence in front of the BNP’s offices departed, and Ms Zia seems to have been able to leave if she wanted to by the end of January. However in a move familiar to many Bangladeshis, who have lived with the effects of Ms Zia and Ms Hasina’s rivalry for nearly two decades, Ms Zia decided to use her detention as a political ploy. She pushed for the transport strike to continue and remained in her offices throughout February, March and the first few days of April, attempting to kick start mass support for her “oust the government” campaign. It was not until 5 April that she finally decided to leave, after two months inside her Gulshan office. Nine days later, on 14 February, a senior BNP leader was forced to admit that the transport strike had also petered out and was no longer in effect.
Despite its anti-climactic end, the transport blockade caused serious ramifications in Bangladesh. The south Asian country has a population of 156 million people and a landmass of just under 144,000 square kilometers, making it the most densely populated country in the world. Although it has posted an estimated economic growth rate of 6.2 per cent in 2014, 40 per cent of the country’s work force remains underemployed. A large portion of the employment that does exist is in the garment, agriculture, tourism and raw materials extraction industries. All of these industries rely on transport at various points of production. The garment industry in particular was susceptible to the effects of the blockade. The industry is a seasonal industry and relies on orders from foreign companies who are trying to predict upcoming trends and styles. If clothes made for the summer cannot reach outside markets in time they lose much of their market value.
The World Bank estimates that Bangladesh has lost nearly $2.2 billion in trade in the last 3 months as result of the transport blockade and subsequent halting of trade flows. At the micro-level the effects of this loss are even more harmful. The people hurt most by the transport blockade are transport workers, farmers who could not sell their produce, and textile workers who already suffer from depressed wages and poor working conditions.
This highlights the real problem with the Bangladeshi political system and its dependence upon these kinds of tactics. Both Ms Zia and Prime Minister Hasina have displayed a flagrant disregard for the concerns of average Bangladeshi’s in their jostling for power. Transport and trade are crucial for daily life, and they should not be used as tools for political leverage. The police barricade and transport strike display willingness on both sides to use state resources as personal political tools. This is not just about abuse of political power – these tactics weaken the state’s legitimacy, destroy investor’s confidence in the country and hurt citizens across the political spectrum. The end of the transport strike on 14 April should be seen as a sign that these brinkmanship tactics are not only ineffective but also harmful. As transport links and trade pick up again, both the BNP and the Awami League should use this opportunity to create a calmer and more cooperative approach to politics in the country. Both parties could use their fondness for transportation as a starting point – investment in Bangladesh’s transport infrastructure would be a great common ground issue to start with.