Bangladesh PM to have unprecedented talks with opposition before poll

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will sit down to unprecedented talks with the opposition on Thursday to discuss installing a caretaker government ahead of December’s election, a key demand of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The BNP, in disarray after the jailing of its chief, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, on corruption charges, stayed away from the last parliamentary election in 2014 when that demand was not met.

That election was marred by widespread violence that killed hundreds of people and disrupted the impoverished South Asian country’s economic mainstay, the $30 billion-a-year export-driven garment industry.

BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the formation of an interim government was necessary to ensure a “level playing field”.

“We will also ask for the release of our chief Khaleda Zia and demand the deployment of the army to ensure smooth voting,” Alamgir told Reuters.

Alamgir said the party still hoped Khaleda, whose jail term was doubled to 10 years on Tuesday, a day after she was jailed in another graft case for seven years, would be released and be able to lead the opposition coalition of 20 parties, the National United Front.

They had not lined up an alternative candidate for prime minister, he added.

The attorney-general has ruled out her taking part in the election.

Hasina and Khaleda, who between them have ruled Bangladesh for decades, are bitter rivals and the BNP says its leader has been jailed on trumped up charges to keep her out of politics.

The government and Hasina’s Awami League deny the accusation and say the courts are independent.

Anisul Huq, minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs, declined to comment on the agenda for the talks.

Mohammad Abdur Rashid, the executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka, said the meeting had raised hopes of a comparatively peaceful election for Bangladesh, which has attracted international attention for hosting tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar.

“People don’t want anarchism like in the previous election,” Rashid told Reuters.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat on Tuesday called the meeting a positive development.

“All sides must avoid violence,” she said. “Violence hinders the democratic process.”

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