Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina said on Wednesday that the mainstream political alliance she leads would boycott the Jan. 22 elections because the interim government had failed to ensure the vote would be free and fair.
A key political alliance boycott of the election to parliament plunged the nation of 145 million into deepening a political crisis that has crippled the South Asian country for months.
The former prime minister's move adds to uncertainty ahead of the parliamentary elections, which have already brought weeks of political violence and crippling strikes.
Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister and leader of a newly formed mega alliance of 17 parties, alleged that the interim government charged with organizing the poll favours the alliance's opponents.
Alliance leaders say the caretaker government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed, is biased in favour of the rival BNP which governed until October.
The announcement came on the day of the last day of withdrawal of nomination for election. Agencies reports that all the candidates have pulled out of the election race, except some dissident candidates of the mega alliance in several places.
The opposition alliance accused the BNP of trying to rig the elections by appointing party loyalists to key positions in the temporary administration and election commission.
Sheikh Hasina said that the caretaker government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed since October, was biased in favour of her alliance's opponents.
She said that fair elections would be impossible under the caretaker government.
"Mr Iajuddin Ahmed, who has become the chief adviser [of the caretaker government], wants to hold an election using an illegal voters' list," she told a news conference in Dhaka.
"We cannot view such an election as legitimate. That is why we, on behalf of the grand alliance, have decided not to participate in the staged election."
The boycott announcement has put a question mark over the election, scheduled for 22 January.
"The caretaker government is not neutral," Hasina told a crowded news conference in the capital Dhaka. "It's biased in favour of our opponents. So we are not going to the polls on Jan. 22."
She accused President Prof. Iajuddin Ahmed of being partisan of her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and demanded he step down as head of the interim government.
An official in the interim government told BBC radio that they would discuss the recent political crisis in their meeting with the President and would also consult the legal experts.
The standoff has set off street clashes, killing at least 34 people since the interim government took over from Zia on Oct. 29.
The Awami League said on December 24 that it would take part in the elections after repeated strikes, protests and blockades that caused massive disruption across the country and left at least 35 people dead.
Hasina said the alliance would block transportation during a strike on coming Sunday and Monday (6 & 7 January) in an effort to force electoral reforms that would ensure free and fair elections.
The outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government accused the opposition of seeking to scuttle the polls but said it would take part in the elections and it was confident that they would be held on time.
However, Khaleda Zia’s alliance reconfirmed it would participate in the election despite Hasina's boycott.
"We shall take part in the polls in spite of the boycott by Hasina's alliance," said Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, general secretary of BNP also a confidant of Khaleda.
Hasina's announcement comes just days after the Election Commission dismissed an appeal by her coalition partner, former military ruler General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, to contest the polls. Election officials last week deemed Ershad ineligible to run for Parliament because he recently lost an appeal of a three-year prison sentence in a decade-old corruption case.
Hasina's alliance has accused President Ahmed of running the government under the guidance of Zia, who constitutionally stepped down at the end of her term to allow the caretaker administration to prepare for the polls.
Hasina said the developments in the past few weeks "have clearly proved that President Iajuddin Ahmed is now the main obstacle in holding free and fair polls."
"We have come to the conclusion that the president must relinquish the office of the chief adviser — the head of the interim government — to make the balloting free and fair," she said.
Hasina denounced the Election Commission saying "biased and dishonest" officials could not be trusted to hold a free and impartial election.
"They must be removed while corrupt and partisan civil officials be kept off duty during the polls," she said.
Acting Chief Election Commissioner Mahfuzur Rahman said Hasina's alliance had formally conveyed its decision to boycott the election. "But we will continue our work for holding the polls on the due date," he told reporters.
She also accused the Election Commission of putting forward a bogus voters list inflated with Zia's supporters and lacking the names of many supporters of Hasina's alliance. The election should be postponed until a new list is ready, she said.
The party had earlier objected to the voter list, saying it contained 14 million fake names.
"The election commission had promised to correct the voter roll but instead they scrapped the names of our supporters and put in the names of a huge number of fake voters as part of the election engineering process," said Sheikh Hasina.
Apart from revision of voter list, the demand included the resignation of two election commissioners and the replacement of judiciary and intelligence agency officials.
What Constitution Says
Bangladesh's constitution stipulates that the interim authority must hold new elections within three months, although this can be extended with permission from the Supreme Court.
Under the constitution, elections must be held within 90 days after an incumbent government resigns under a neutral caretaker government whose tenure is of 90 days.
Hasina said people would take responsibility to protect the constitution and preserve democracy, "but they want to get rid of a corrupt and biased administration first," hinting that she could re-enter the election race should her demands be met.
Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 144 million, has a history of political turmoil. Two presidents have been slain in military coups. #
With reports of Salim Mia (AFP), Farid Hossain (AP), Anis Ahmed (Reuters) filed from Dhaka, Bangladesh