Authorities in Bangladesh have said they will hold a “free and fair” national election on December 23 despite bitter wrangling between the government and the opposition.
Bangladesh’s Election Commission announced on Thursday that the election will take place despite the imprisonment of the leader of the main opposition party and the banning of its chief partner, Jamaat-e-Islami.
“A favourable situation prevails in the country to hold a free and fair election,” Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda said in an address aired by state-run television and radio stations.
Huda said he hoped all parties will participate in the election, in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking re-election.
The opposition has expressed fears that the election will not be democratic and has threatened protests.
Hasina’s archrival and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who is in jail on corruption charges, is likely to be banned from contesting.
The Election Commission announced that the candidates must file nominations by November 19, leaving Zia virtually no time to appeal.
On Wednesday, the ruling Awami League party rejected an opposition demand for a caretaker government ahead of the election, saying it was “unconstitutional”.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says a caretaker government is essential for free and fair polls.
It is still not clear whether the BNP would contest the election. The party boycotted the 2014 polls, which were marred by deadly violence and labelled by international observers as “flawed”.
The BNP alleges over 500 of its supporters have been killed and nearly 750 abducted by the police and thrown in jails since 2014.
In recent months, the BNP’s strength was further weakened after Zia was convicted and sentenced to seven and 10 years in jail in two separate cases of corruption.
Her eldest son and heir apparent, Tarique Rahman, who lives in exile in London, was also sentenced to life in prison over a 2004 grenade attack targeting Hasina.
It will be Bangladesh’s 11th general election since it gained independence from Pakistan through a bloody war in 1971.
Hasina’s government has earned global plaudits for letting in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar.
However, critics have decried her increasingly “authoritarian rule”, the government’s handling of student protests this year and its crackdown on free speech.
Civil society groups and activists have criticised the country’s new Digital Security Act and a new broadcast law that is under consideration, warning such regulations may affect a fair election.