DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Thousands of supporters of Bangladesh’s governing and opposition parties held separate rallies in the capital on Friday over who should oversee the next general election, expected to be held early next year. Despite huge crowds, both rallies were peaceful, with a large security presence.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hopes to return to power for a fourth consecutive term, while the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by ailing former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is making its strongest effort to drive Hasina out of office. Zia and Hasina are archrivals and have led the country at different times since 1991.
Hasina says the election should be held under her government’s supervision as specified in the constitution, but Zia’s party and its allies say Hasina must step down to allow the installation of a non-party caretaker government to ensure a free and fair vote.
Zia’s party has threatened to boycott the balloting if it is held under Hasina, saying that a credible election is not possible under a political government. But Hasina insists that voting will be free and fair under her leadership.
The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have urged both sides to demonstrate restraint and work toward holding a credible election.
Thousands of supporters of Zia’s party gathered Friday in front of the party headquarters at Naya Paltan in Dhaka. They chanted anti-government slogans demanding that Hasina step down immediately and hand over power to a neutral administration.
A few blocks away, Hasina’s ruling Awami League mobilized thousands of students and youth supporters to accuse the opposition of creating chaos.
The opposition has urged citizens to reject Hasina’s government over rising commodity prices and corruption allegations. The government, meanwhile, points to large projects it has implemented, such as bridges, a nuclear power plant, new ports and highways, saying the country will benefit from them and the economy will be transformed.
“Prices of goods … as well as electricity and the gas situation are out of control. If we can’t provide services to the people, the economic development is meaningless,” activist Mizanur Rahman said at the opposition rally.
“We want a fair election,” Rahman said. “All we demand today is to get back the right to vote and exercise the right.”
But Sheikh Fazle Fahim, a presidium member of the Awami League’s youth front Jubo League, said Bangladesh has been following democratic processes for more than 14 years. He said the government has set a goal of becoming a middle-income country with improved human rights and health.
“This is all happening through the democratic process. And we want to send out a message that there is no alternative to a democratic process,” he said at the government rally.
He accused the opposition of attempting to trigger violence by calling for protests.
Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy with a history of violence since 1991, when Hasina and Zia jointly pushed then-dictator H.M. Ershad out of office. Zia became prime minister three times – for two full five-year terms and again for a short time. Hasina became prime minister in 1996 and returned to power again in 2008. She has remained in office since then.
Zia’s party accuses Hasina of vote rigging in 2018 and says the next election will not be free and fair under her.
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