Bangladesh hit by general strike on eve of polls

People take part in Friday prayers as members of the police stand guard in Dhaka on Jan 3, 2014. Bangladesh's opposition began enforcing a 48-hour general strike on Saturday on the eve of elections as its leader remained confined to her home. --
People take part in Friday prayers as members of the police stand guard in Dhaka on Jan 3, 2014. Bangladesh's opposition began enforcing a 48-hour general strike on Saturday on the eve of elections as its leader remained confined to her home. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh's opposition began enforcing a 48-hour general strike on Saturday on the eve of elections as its leader remained confined to her home.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is boycotting Sunday's polls, called the strike in a final bid to torpedo a contest which is already sure to be won by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League.

The strike comes after BNP leader Khaleda Zia issued an appeal to voters to also "completely boycott" what she called "a scandalous farce" and accused the government of placing her under house arrest.

The vote build-up has been significantly overshadowed by violence, with election-related unrest killing around 150 people since the date was set in October.

Observers fear the contest will trigger new violence after the bloodiest 12 months in Bangladesh's 42-year history.

Although the government has officially denied Ms Zia has been detained, aides say she has been barred from leaving her Dhaka home for nearly a week.

Dozens of riot police could be seen stationed outside her home on Friday, along with water-cannon and sand trucks, and prevented anyone from crossing through barriers.

In her first public comments since her confinement, Ms Zia said "the government has effectively placed me under house arrest... and my house has been sealed off by security and intelligence agents."

The BNP and 20 other parties are boycotting the polls after SheikhHasina rejected their demands that it be overseen by a neutral caretaker government.

BUSES FIREBOMBED

Around 150 people have been killed in election violence since October, including victims of firebomb attacks on buses and trucks.

Around 50,000 troops have been deployed to ensure the vote passes off peacefully, although several polling stations have been set alight.

The United States, European Union and Commonwealth have refused to send observers to monitor an election the opposition says lacks any credibility.

The outcome is not in doubt as Awami League candidates or their allies are running unopposed in 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats.

Sheikh Hasina has rejected all demands for a postponement until there is consensus on the electoral framework, accusing Ms Zia of "choosing the path of confrontation".

Mr Gowher Rizvi, Sheikh Hasina's senior foreign policy advisor, said the government had no choice but to hold the elections as parliament's term had expired but insisted it wanted dialogue with its opponents.

"If we had postponed them, there would have been a complete legal and constitutional vacuum," Mr Rizvi told Agence France-Presse (AFP), while admitting the absence of the BNP from the ballot papers was a blow.

"When a major party refuses to take part in an election, clearly some of the lustre of the election is lost." Mr Rizvi said the Premier had made clear her desire to "engage in a constructive dialogue" with the BNP, although Sheikh Hasina and Ms Zia have a toxic relationship.

BNP vice-chairman Shamsher Chowdhury said there could be no compromise on the party's demands for Sheikh Hasina to stand aside for fresh elections.

A poll published on Friday showed the BNP would have narrowly beaten the Awami League and that 77 per cent of voters are against the election.

"We would certainly have won an election that was free, fair in a mechanism that gave voters a free choice," Mr Chowdhury told AFP.

"Only elections under a non-party government can ensure enough fairness to create a level playing field."

Both sides have blamed each other for the electoral violence which has helped push the death toll from political violence since the start of 2013 to more than 500, according to local rights activists.

Some of the worst violence followed the conviction of leading Islamists for crimes dating back to the 1971 independence war when the former East Pakistan broke away from Islamabad.

The main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned from taking part in the contest and scores of its leaders have been arrested.

Syed Abdullah Taher, a former lawmaker who is one of the few Jamaat leaders to have escaped detention, said his party was not interested in any dialogue with the government which he said had "lost legitimacy".

"If this government, by dint of their atrocities, tried to form a new government, that would be an illegal government and would have no right to govern," he told AFP.