Opposition leader Khaleda Zia accused Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of “murdering democracy” as her archrival faced growing calls yesterday to hold fresh polls after a walkover election.
The US led international pressure for a swift rerun that would include all the major parties, brushing aside Hasina’s insistence that a boycott by Zia’s opposition did not undermine her legitimacy.
Zia, a two-time former prime minister who has been confined to her home for about two weeks, reiterated calls for Hasina to stand aside and let a neutral caretaker government organize the new election.
“I’m calling on the government to cancel the farcical polls, step down and reach an understanding [with the opposition] to organize a free, fair and neutral election under a non-party government,” she said in a statement released overnight.
“The scandalous election on Jan. 5 not only demonstrated the people’s lack of confidence in the government, but also proved that free, fair, credible, peaceful and participatory elections cannot be held without a non-party neutral government and credible election commission,” she said.
The opposition has enforced a 48-hour general strike since Monday to force Hasina to cancel the polls.
At least 26 people were killed during Sunday’s election, the bloodiest vote in Bangladesh’s history, while hundreds of opposition supporters set fire to or trashed polling stations.
The result was never in doubt, with Hasina’s Awami League and a handful of allies winning all the seats being contested.
The vote’s credibility had been undermined even before polling day as 153 Awami League members or allies were declared elected unopposed to the country’s 300-seat parliament.
Zia, in her first comments since the election, called the low voter turnout a “silent revolution” against Hasina, adding that the league had no “moral or constitutional grounds” to hold on to power.
“The people did not participate in the murder of democracy,” she said.
The US also called for a new vote that would “credibly express the will” of the people.
“With more than half of the seats uncontested and most of the remainder offering only token opposition, the results of the just concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people,” US Department of State deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“While it remains to be seen what form the new government will take ... we encourage the government of Bangladesh and opposition parties to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold as soon as possible elections that are free, fair, peaceful and credible,” she added.
Asked about the prospect of sanctions on her government, Hasina was dismissive, saying: “What crimes did we commit that they would impose sanction on us?”
She made clear she was in no mood to extend any olive branches to Zia, her bitter rival for the last two decades, accusing the two-time former prime minister of stoking the violence.
“If they come forward to discuss with us, they have to leave all these terrorist activities behind because what they are doing is absolutely killing people, killing police, killing innocent people,” Hasina said.
Any agreement on a new vote carries huge risks for Hasina, with an eve-of-election poll showing she would have lost in a straight contest with Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party.