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Scenarios of Mass Killing Did Not Occur in Bangladesh’s 2018 Elections

Protesters try to break through a police barricade during a demonstration against a strike called by the opposition in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. —Associated Press

In December 2018 Bangladesh held national elections. Though there were some violent incidents, the elections-related potential mass atrocity scenarios that we warned about did not come to pass. The number of fatalities was much lower than the last presidential elections. The low level of violence surrounding Bangladesh’s elections last year was largely a result of the ruling party’s successful consolidation of power in the lead up to the election.

The Simon-Skjodt Center’s Early Warning Project produces regular analysis of forecasted risk of mass killings globally. The Early Warning Project defines a mass killing as the deaths of at least 1,000 civilians targeted as part of a specific group over a period of one year or less, even though mass atrocity crimes more generally do not need to reach that specific threshold. The Project’s annual statistical risk assessment provides a list of all countries ranked in order of risk, and each year the Center chooses a high-risk country for in-depth research (including Zimbabwe and Mali). In 2017, the Center selected Bangladesh for further analysis since the country had ranked in the top 20 countries for each of the previous three years. Factors that contributed to Bangladesh’s relatively high risk include its history of mass atrocities, political factionalism, and armed conflict in neighboring countries. Its high-risk ranking was relatively surprising, however, given its recent economic growth and lack of recent significant armed conflict.

The purpose of the Center’s research was to identify any scenarios in which Bangladesh could plausibly experience mass atrocities—large-scale systematic attacks on civilians—in order to prompt actions that could help avert those scenarios. The scenarios were analyzed not because mass killing in Bangladesh was likely, but because if they unfolded the impact would be devastating. Indeed, our initial analysis indicated that risk of mass killing was relatively low, but that increased attention was warranted in the lead-up to the 2018 elections.  

In a report released in November 2017, the Simon-Skjodt Center found that the risk of mass atrocities centered around political competition between the ruling Awami League party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party opposition alliance, and that the post-electoral period would have the highest risk of mass atrocities, no matter the outcome of the election. The report outlined three scenarios in which various actors may have been motivated to commit mass killings shortly after the elections in December 2018.

In the case of a clear victory by the Awami League, some Awami League activists could orchestrate violence against local political opposition, or target Hindus and other religious minorities for land seizures. The leaders of minority groups interviewed for this report indicated that this particular scenario would probably not escalate into a mass killing episode, and this electoral outcome posed the smallest atrocity risk of the three scenarios. In case of a victory by an opposition alliance, some analysts shared concerns about potential acts of mass violence in reprisal against Awami League stalwarts and beneficiaries, as members of the opposition had been attacked and left out of power for nearly a decade. Our research found that unclear or contested results posed the riskiest scenario in terms of potential mass killing.

In the end, the ruling Awami League won the national elections by a significant margin, securing 288 of the 300 seats in Parliament. As our analysis suggested, this decisive outcome translated into relatively little violence: while at least 17 people were reportedly killed during the election, the violence did not approach the Center’s definition of a mass killing. The election remains somewhat controversial, as opposition groups within Bangladesh have raised concerns about voter intimidation and fraud.

Based on the Center’s analysis so far, the election results indicate a reduced risk of mass atrocities in the near future. The Awami League has secured its hold on power without resorting to mass violence, and the significantly weakened opposition seems to have limited capacity and motivation to commit crimes on this scale.

The consolidation of power in the Awami League, however, brings significant risks to the future of democracy in the country. Through the latest election the Awami League has been rewarded for its crackdowns on political opposition and civil society, and its so-called “lurch toward authoritarianism”  means fewer avenues for people in Bangladesh to safely express grievances. The reduced risk for mass killings is a relief now, but increased threats to democracy present a growing problem for those concerned with human rights more generally in the country. In the long term, those who want to prevent mass atrocities will need to keep an eye on the impact of increasingly authoritarian governance whether it will impact future risk of mass killing.