Bangladesh will hold parliamentary elections on January 7, its Election Commission has announced, as deadly protests by opposition parties demanding the prime minister’s resignation have rocked the country.
“The 12th parliamentary election will be held on January 7 in 300 seats,” Chief Election Commissioner Habibul Awal said on Wednesday in a live television broadcast, urging parties to hold talks to resolve the political crisis.
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The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose top leaders are either jailed or in exile, has already said it will boycott the polls if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not resign and transfer power to a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the general election.
Hasina has led Bangladesh for the past 15 years and has been accused of ruling with an iron fist. She is seen as almost certain to return to power for a fourth time if the opposition boycott goes ahead.
Hasina’s main rival and two-time premier, BNP leader Khaleda Zia, is effectively under house arrest for what her party calls trumped-up corruption charges.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections, but participated in 2018. Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the Muslim-majority country, and the Islami Andolon Bangladesh (IAB) party also said they would spurn the polls.
Thousands of IAB supporters marched to the Election Commission’s offices to protest the announcement on Wednesday, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.
Mass antigovernment demonstrations and a widening crackdown on the opposition have been simmering for months and intensified over recent weeks.
“We sincerely wish the government would shun this path of violence and coercion of the opposition, so that an appropriate congenial environment is created, … ensuring peaceful coexistence where people can freely exercise their democratic rights,” Abdul Moyeen Khan, a former minister and member of the BNP’s highest policy-making body, told the Reuters news agency.
Hasina has been accused of authoritarianism, human rights violations, a crackdown on free speech and suppression of dissent while jailing her critics.
The government is under pressure from Western countries to hold “free and fair” elections.
The United States, the top buyer of Bangladeshi garments, said in May it was implementing a policy allowing for the restriction of visas to Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic election process in the country of nearly 170 million people.
Low wages have helped Bangladesh build its garment industry. About 4,000 factories employ four million workers, supplying brands such as H&M, Zara, Levi’s and Gap. Ready-made garments are a mainstay of the economy, accounting for almost 16 percent of gross domestic product, or about 85 percent of its $55bn in annual exports.
Last week, up to 25,000 garment workers clashed with police as protests rejecting a government-offered pay rise forced the closure of at least 100 factories outside the capital, Dhaka.
A government-appointed panel raised garment factory workers’ wages by 56.25 percent to 12,500 taka ($114) a month from December 1. But conditions are dire for many of the workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at 8,300 taka ($75).
After unions rejected the government’s offer, Hasina rejected the demands of the protesting workers for a higher pay rise, insisting they accept what was on the table or “go back to their village”. Union leaders expressed concern that her words could provoke more violence from police and security forces.