DHAKA Bangladesh will hold its national election on January 5, the Election Commission said on Monday, enraging the opposition, which took to the streets in protest and called for a blockade of roads, waterways and railways across the country.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina formed a caretaker administration this month involving members of the ruling party and opposition to oversee the polls, as is the usual pattern in Bangladesh to try to ensure a free and fair vote.
However, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says the caretaker cabinet is not impartial and has rejected any attempt to hold an election until it is satisfied a neutral interim administration is in place without Hasina.
As soon as Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed announced in a televised statement that the election would be held on January 5, protests erupted in several cities, including the capital Dhaka.
Police and witnesses said at least 100 cars were set ablaze and activists attacked a police post in northeastern Habiganj district, 180 km (110 miles) from Dhaka, and clashed with police in areas including the northern district of Kustia, 275 km from the capital.
An activist from the student wing of the BNP was killed when a petrol bomb exploded in Comilla, 100 km from Dhaka, police said, adding several others had been injured in the protests.
The dispute over the conduct of the election, nothing new in Bangladesh where power has flipped between the dynastic parties since the 1990s, has led to the deaths of some 25 people in protests and the arrest of some BNP leaders over the past weeks.
It comes against the backdrop of protests over conditions in factories supporting Bangladesh's $22 billion garment export industry, the economic lifeblood of the poor country of 160 million that has been rocked by a string of deadly accidents.
By way of compromise, Hasina, of the ruling Awami League, on Sunday offered her old rival, BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia, any position for the opposition party in the caretaker administration.
But it was not enough for opposition leaders, who reacted angrily at announcement of the date.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, acting secretary general of BNP demanded the schedule be suspended at a news briefing.
He also called for a 48 hour program of blockades to roads, rail routes and waterways from Tuesday morning.
A.S.M. Hannan Shah, a senior leader of the BNP, said people would not accept the election schedule and would resist it. His family said he was arrested soon after making the comment.
Election Commissioner Ahmed said the army would be deployed during the election to keep the peace. The Border Guard Bangladesh, a paramilitary force, was deployed in the capital to face any protests.
The caretaker system began in the mid-1990s to try to ensure a fair race between the mutually distrustful parties.
The two parties differ little in terms of policy, with voters frequently just booting out the incumbent in the hope that change will bring improvement.
The League lost five mayoral elections over the summer. According to a July opinion poll conducted by Sydney-based pollster AC Nielsen and U.S.-based consultancy Democracy International, it enjoys the support of just 32 percent of the electorate, 11 percentage points behind the BNP.
(Editing by Alison Williams)