(Bloomberg) -- Bangladesh will go to the polls on Dec. 23 amid increasingly bitter tensions between the ruling Awami League and the opposition alliance, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina looking to extend her nearly 10-year rule.
Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda announced the election road map despite opposition calls to defer the poll until their leader, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, is released from jail.
“I urge all political parties to end their differences and join the election to make it participatory and competitive," Huda said in a televised speech on state-run broadcaster BTV on Thursday. “Competition must not lead to animosity or violence. Parties must pay special attention to that.”
While Hasina has won international approval for giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar, critics fear her increasingly authoritarian rule could threaten free and fair elections. They complain about arrests of her critics, the enforced disappearance of opposition activists, crackdowns on protests and free speech and the country’s new Digital Security Act.
Hasina, who is vying for a third straight term, has held a series of talks with her political opponents since Nov. 1 to defuse tensions, but they failed to reach a consensus. Hasina said it was up to the judiciary to decide on legal matters such as freeing Zia.
The opposition alliance, known as the Jatiya Oikya Front, is going ahead with its planned rally in the northeastern district of Rajshahi to press home its demands, including Zia’s freedom, the resignation of the current government and reforms to the Election Commission.
"The election schedule reflects the wishes of the ruling party, not of all the people in general,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam, secretary general of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said in a news briefing on Thursday. The BNP is a key ally of a new opposition alliance led by Kamal Hossain, an 81-year-old internationally-renowned jurist.
Under the constitution, the national poll must be held by Jan. 28.
Zia, chairperson of the BNP, was initially jailed for five years on Feb. 8 in a corruption case that involves the embezzlement of funds meant for an orphanage. The High Court on Oct. 30 doubled the jail term to 10 years, angering the party further.
Just a day earlier, a Dhaka court sentenced Zia to seven years in a separate corruption case, convicting her of embezzling 31.54 million taka ($376,000) from a charitable trust named after her late husband. She denies all the charges and her party alleges the government is using these cases to remove Zia from the political scene and prevent her from contesting elections.
Huda announced a plan to introduce electronic voting machines for the first time in the parliamentary election amid strong opposition by the BNP and its allies. Electronic voting will be used in some urban areas on a limited scale, he said.
About 104.2 million people are registered as voters and will elect 300 representatives to parliament through the balloting in about 40,000 polling stations. Candidates have until Nov. 19 to submit nominations.
The electoral commission has recruited up to 700,000 officials to conduct the polls.
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