Bangladesh braces for more protests over vote
By Anis Ahmed

DHAKA (Reuters) — A leading Bangladesh politician opposed to this month’s election vowed on Wednesday to stage more strikes and blockades to scuttle the poll, hours after the interim government drafted in the army to maintain peace.

Former prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads a multi-party alliance that has boycotted the election, announced the fresh package of protests during a rally in the capital Dhaka.

“We are determined not to allow a one-sided election in the country,” said Hasina, adding that the “boycott of the election is aimed to preserve democracy and the people’s right to vote”.

Hasina and her allies have called on President Iajuddin Ahmed to resign and for election officials to be removed, accusing them of bias towards the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by immediate past prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia. They also want an overhaul of the voters’ list and a new election schedule.

Khaleda told an election rally at Chandina, 100 km southeast of Dhaka, that voters must “resist those who want to stop the election and destroy democracy and the country”.

“They (political rivals) have rights to boycott, but they have no right to resist election.”

The political stalemate has fuelled clashes between police and political activists. At least 45 people have been killed and hundreds injured since the interim government of Iajuddin took charge on Oct. 29.

“If they (the interim authority and Election Commission) still hold the ballot on Jan. 22, I announce that the countrywide strike will continue non-stop, indefinitely,” Hasina, who is also chief of the Awami League, told supporters.

She urged state officials and security forces “not to pitch themselves against the freedom and democracy-loving people by siding with the corrupt and dishonest politicians”.

Iajuddin, who is also constitutional head of the armed forces, asked the military to actively assist with civil administration from Wednesday and to maintain order throughout the poll until power was transferred to the elected government.

Defence officials said around 60,000 army troops would be on duty across the country for 20 days from Wednesday.

Thousands of police and paramilitary troops, already on the streets of the capital Dhaka and other major cities during a three-day nationwide transport blockade that ended on Tuesday, would also be on duty, they said.

Hasina urged supporters to stage a countrywide protest on Thursday against police excesses during the most recent blockade as well as an indefinite blockade of roads leading to the presidential palace from Jan. 14.

She also called for a nationwide transport shutdown on Jan. 14-15 and 17-18, and a general strike on Jan. 21-22.

“Only god knows where we are heading to,” said one disgruntled government official.

Iajuddin and the Election Commission have promised to hold elections as scheduled.

Khaleda ended her five-year rule as prime minister in late October and handed power to the interim authority. Under the constitution, new elections must be held within three months.

European and U.S. envoys shuttling between rival political camps have said the elections will not be credible and acceptable to the international community without the participation of all major parties.

Adding to their concern, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) said on Wednesday they had suspended plans to monitor the elections.

Additional reporting by Nizam Ahmed and Masud Karim.

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