Bangladeshi PM steps down as protests force poll to be delayed

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The Independent Online

Bangladesh postponed elections yesterday as continuing violence forced the President to declare a state of emergency.

The government announced a curfew in the capital, Dhaka, and 60 other towns and cities. At least 45 people have been killed in pre-vote violence so far.

The move to delay the elections, which was announced last night by President Iajuddin Ahmed, came after both the UN and the EU announced they were suspending all technical support for the vote, originally scheduled for 22 January. "It's not possible to hold the elections on schedule," said Mr Ahmed. "We need a flawless voter list to ensure that the elections are free, fair and credible.'' He did not give a new date.

A "grave emergency exists in the country threatening public security and its economy", said the President's spokesman, Rahman Chowdhury. At least 200 people have been injured in the past three days as opposition activists enforced a transport blockade. The army was called in but failed to bring calm to the streets.

A new voter list had been one of the demands of a major political party, the Awami League, that has orchestrated protests and strikes in recent months. It alleges Mr Ahmed's administration was biased towards its rival, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP), and said it would boycott the elections unless he stepped down and the polls were postponed. Mr Ahmed announced yesterday he was resigning as Prime Minister.

Under Bangladesh's system, a neutral caretaker government takes over three months before elections. But the parties were unable to agree on a neutral prime minister, and Mr Ahmed stepped in. He remains President, a largely ceremonial office, and has already appointed a successor as caretaker prime minister, Fazlul Haque.

At the heart of this crisis is the rivalry between the two party leaders - the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina and the BNP's Begum Khaleda Zia. Khaleda Zia ended her five-year term as prime minister in the autumn and handed over to an interim government.

Political analysts say the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia has divided the country of 140 million. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon said: "The political crisis in Bangladesh has severely jeopardised the legitimacy of the electoral process."

Stefan Frowein, head of the European Commission's delegation in Dhaka, said: "I am deeply disappointed that it has not proven possible for the main parties to reach an agreement paving the way for democratic and credible elections."

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