Bangladeshis will vote in nationwide parliamentary polls on Dec. 23, the Election Commission announced Thursday, while an opposition alliance did not state whether it would compete in the general election.
The nationally televised announcement setting the election date in 45 days for 300 seats in parliament came a day after leaders of the ruling bloc headed by the Awami League party held talks with counterparts from the National Unity Front (NUF), a newly formed opposition alliance, for a second time.
NUF leaders sought to delay the vote until February or March 2019 and had asked that a neutral caretaker government be appointed during the election cycle.
“There is a constitutional obligation to hold the 11th parliamentary polls by Jan. 28, 2019,” K.M. Nural Huda, the chief election commissioner, told the nation.
“I request the political parties settle their differences and disagreements, if any, politically. … I urge all political parties to contest the polls.”
Huda said the deadline to file nomination papers would be in 11 days – on Nov.19 – and a certified list of candidates is to be made public on Nov. 22. As many as 600,000 law enforcement and military personnel will be deployed and 40,000 polling centers will be open on Election Day.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a leading opposition party and an NUF member, boycotted the last general election – held in January 2014 – in protest of Awami’s refusal to cede the reins of government to a caretaker administration during that year’s voting season.
As a result, BNP holds no seat in the current parliament, which has a friendly 34-member “opposition” bloc, whose leader is an adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Awami and its allies hold 250 seats, and independent MPs occupy 16 elected seats. Fifty other seats are held by appointed MPs.
Also on Thursday, officials announced that BNP leader Khaleda Zia was transferred from a hospital, where she had been undergoing treatment, to her cell at the old Dhaka Central Jail, where she is the lone inmate.
The three-time former prime minister has been locked up since Feb. 8, when she was convicted on charges of embezzling money meant for an orphanage established in her name. Last month, she was convicted on a second corruption charge.
After her release from the hospital, jail authorities had her appear in a courtroom set up inside the old jail for a hearing on a 2007 corruption complaint linked to a gas exploration contract with a Canadian company, officials said.
“Khaleda Zia was produced before the court in violation of rules. She is still sick. This is a total violation of rules and her human rights,” her attorney, Sanaullah Mia, told BenarNews.
Zia supporters have protested the verdicts, claiming they were orchestrated to remove Hasina’s chief rival from the political arena. Zia’s son and heir-apparent, Tarique Rahman, also has been convicted of corruption and lives in self-exile in London.
The Election Commission’s goal is to ensure equal opportunities for all political parties, election commissioner Huda said as he urged political parties to treat their rivals with respect.
The Awami League and its 13 allies responded positively.
“The announcement of the schedule allays people’s confusion over holding the next general elections. We welcome the decision,” Awami League Joint Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif told reporters.
Obaidul Quader, Awami’s general secretary, said the party planned to start selling nomination forms to potential candidates on Friday.
The Jatiya Party, an Awami ally, echoed its support.
“At our talks with the Election Commission on Wednesday, the Jatiya Party urged the commission to go ahead with holding the polls in line with the constitution,” party leader Mujubul Haque told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, officials with the new opposition alliance questioned the announcement.
“The schedule does not reflect the expectations of the people. It reflected the government’s desire to hold another one-sided election,” said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, NUF spokesman and BNP secretary general.
He said the BNP would meet with NUF members before announcing whether they would contest the Dec. 23 election, but he did not say when they would announce their decision.
The BNP last held power in Bangladesh in 2006.
Expert: Poll date could have been set later
While the Awami League and its allies favor holding the election within the date specified by the constitution, that has not always been the case, a former election commissioner told BenarNews.
“In 2006, the then-ruling BNP and its allies extended support to the pro-BNP caretaker government to hold the ninth general elections by late January 2007 in line with the constitution. But the opposition Awami League and its allies demanded shifting the polls,” ex-commissioner and retired Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hossain said.
Amid street fights between the BNP and the opposition Awami League, an army-backed caretaker government took charge of the government and delayed the election until December 2008 when the Awami League returned to power.
Before the last general election four years ago, the Awami government amended the constitution to remove a clause mandating that a caretaker administration run the country during the national voting cycle.
Hossain said the election commission could have delayed the election schedule announcement.
“They are bound to hold the polls by Jan. 28. The commission has enough time to hold the polls,” he said. “As the two political fronts have been in negotiations over the polls, the commission could have waited to see whether they reached a compromise.”