By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) -Bangladesh’s main opposition party urged voters on Wednesday to boycott what it called a “one-sided dummy election” due in January, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina kicked off her campaign for a fourth consecutive term.
With its top leaders either jailed or in the exile, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been calling for Hasina to resign and for a neutral authority to replace the government and oversee the Jan. 7 polls, which the BNP is not contesting.
Hasina has repeatedly rejected opposition calls to step down and has blamed the BNP for instigating anti-government protests that have rocked Dhaka since late October and in which at least 10 people have been killed.
“Boycott the dummy election on January 7. Don’t participate in the monkey game on January 7,” the BNP’s Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told an online press briefing. “None of you will go to the polling station. This is your democratic right.”
Rizvi also called on government employees – especially those involved in organising the election – to quit and for all services, including banking and the judicial system, to be halted. “Suspend all taxes, fees, utility bills and other payables to the government,” he said.
Hasina urged people to vote for her party to continue work towards a prosperous Bangladesh as she began campaigning in the northeastern Sylhet district.
“Casting a vote is the constitutional right of the people. If anyone interferes with voting or elections, the people will reject them,” she told a huge rally.
“Any party can boycott the poll but why do they burn people to death?”, she said. The BNP denies involvement in any violence.
Four people, including a mother and her three-year-old son, were killed on Tuesday when a train was set on fire.
Some 382 independents candidates, more than half of whom are members of Hasina’s Awami League, are contesting 221 out of 300 constituencies, alongside official Awami League candidates.
A total of 128 independents contested the election in 2018, according to the data from the Election Commission.
Awami League has shared 26 constituencies with its ally the Jatiya Party, thus allowing the latter to field candidates in a total of 283 seats.
The BNP called independent candidates who are ruling party members ‘dummy candidates’.
Awami League joint general secretary AFM Bahauddin Nasim denied this.
“Anyone can contest elections, it is their democratic right. We cannot impose any restrictions on it. We want a free, fair and competitive election,” he said.
Rights groups have accused the government of targeting opposition leaders and supporters. The government denies the accusations but faces pressure from Western nations to hold free, fair and participatory elections.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; editing by Miral Fahmy and Toby Chopra)