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Bangladesh’s main opposition party plans mass rally

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – The main opposition party in Bangladesh plans to hold a mass rally on Saturday in the capital to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the transfer of power to a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee general elections next year.

But the ruling Awami League party has warned that any attempt to trigger violence would be met with force, and said it would hold a “peace rally” near the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s headquarters, where supporters of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the party’s leader, also plan to gather.

The opposition says it is attempting a final push to remove Hasina as the Election Commission prepares to announce the country’s 12th national election, expected to be held in January.

Tensions are high in Bangladesh, a parliamentary democracy with a history of violence during political protests, especially before elections. The rivalry between Hasina and Zia has been ongoing for decades, and Hasina’s government has been under pressure for months as the opposition has held largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations. But experts say violence could break out anytime.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of Zia’s party, said it would continue to push for the resignation of Hasina’s administration and the installation of a caretaker government.

Former Prime Minister and Chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia addresses a gathering of supporters on the last day of campaigning in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 27, 2008. PHOTO: AP

“We don’t trust this government. They must go first to hold a free and fair election. Otherwise they would rig the election,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Hasina hopes to return to power for a fourth consecutive term and says the election should be held under her government’s supervision as specified in the constitution.

Ahead of Saturday’s rally, Obaidul Quader, the Awami League party’s general secretary, said its members would be on the streets, and pledged to retaliate if there are any attacks by opposition supporters.

“The answer of violence is not silence. The answer of violence is violence,” Quader told reporters on Thursday. “If our peace rally is attacked, our activists will not sit idle.”

Amid worries over whether the polls will be free and fair, a diplomatic row is also brewing between Hasina’s government and the United States.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina greets the gathering during an interaction with journalists after official election results gave her a third straight term, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 31, 2018. PHOTO: AP

The US State Department said in September it is “taking steps to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” These include members of law enforcement, the ruling party and the opposition.

The Biden administration has made the push for free and fair elections in Bangladesh “a prime focus of its democracy promotion policy abroad,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre.

The imposition of visa restrictions followed previous measures including restrictions on the country’s elite anti-crime force. Rights groups and the US say the force is responsible for many enforced disappearances of government critics and opposition activists. The restrictions have resulted in a decrease in the number of deaths in so-called “cross-fire” incidents in recent months, media reports said.

Rights groups and the US also criticised the government for enacting a controversial cyber security law, saying it is designed to silence critics and the opposition, an allegation authorities deny. Critics have also slammed the recent jailing and subsequent release on bail of two Bangladeshi rights activists.

Hasina recently told parliament that the US wants to remove her from power at any cost. But the opposition and critics have welcomed the move by the US, which is the largest importer of Bangladesh’s garment products.

Bangladeshi women line up outside a polling station to cast their votes in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 30, 2018. PHOTO: AP

Reactions to the US move in Bangladesh have broken down along partisan lines, Kugelman said. Hasina’s administration slammed it as “meddling” while many critics welcomed it, saying they hope it will push back against what they view as Hasina’s growing authoritarianism.

Recent elections in Bangladesh, especially the last one in 2018, were widely believed by the West to be flawed. The Awami League party doesn’t have a good track record of overseeing free and fair elections since Hasina returned to power in 2008.

Kugelman said the government and opposition “are on a collision course” and that “there’s a good chance we could see an election with no opposition participation.”

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