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Bangladesh election dialogue jitters

Hope that talks will stem past poll violence allow ballots to be cast freely
Bangladesh election dialogue jitters

Ruling Awami League leaders meet Dr. Kamal Hossain, center, a prominent jurist and leader of a newly formed opposition alliance, to hand over an invitation for talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka on Oct. 30. (ucanews.com photo)

Christian leaders in Bangladesh have welcomed a dialogue between political parties amid uncertainty ahead of an impending national election.

There are opposition concerns over scope for government partisanship in the lead-up to voting in three months.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, of the ruling Awami League, convened a series of meetings with opposition parties to start from the evening of Nov. 1 at her official residence.

The dialogue embraces a newly formed opposition alliance called the Jatiya Oikya Front (United National Front) that includes the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Sensitive issues such as limitations on campaign period government decision-making, as well as arrangements for the dissolution of parliament, were to be negotiated.

The BNP's secretary-general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam, cast doubt over the outcome of the talks given that former prime minister and BNP chief Khaleda Zia remains in jail.

"If the Awami League was really enthusiastic about resolving political issues through dialogue, it should not have allowed Khaleda Zia to be jailed on fabricated cases," Islam said during an Oct. 31 rally in the capital, Dhaka.

Islam said that the BNP would press the government in relation to a seven-point list of demands, including for her release.

Rasheda Rawnak Khan, a Dhaka-based political commentator, supported the discussion process but cautioned that the nation was eagerly hoping for compromise and positive results.

People wanted a fair and credible election without animosity or violence, she added.

Father Anthony Sen, a member of the low-lying nation's Catholic Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, hailed the dialogue initiative as having potential to "bring goodness to our nation".

"We have a history of political discord and violence stemming from elections," Father Sen noted.

The priest, based in northern Dinapur Diocese, said ethnic and religious minorities were particularly fearful of the implications of political conflict in a charged campaign atmosphere.

"Many people from minority groups told me they won't line up to vote if violence flares up," Father Sen said.

Only compromise could diminish their fear by allowing democracy to thrive, he added.

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Nirmol Rozario, president of the Bangladesh Christian Association, the county's largest interfaith Christian forum, expressed similar sentiments and said people deeply wanted to be able to freely exercise their right to vote.

A Muslim-majority nation of 160 million, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, but the military has intervened in politics on 19 occasions since 1975, including through two successful coups.

Democracy was restored in the 1990s after 15-years of military rule and since then the Awami League and BNP have rotated into and out of power. National elections in 1996, 2001 and 2008 were held under non-party caretaker governments.

In 2011, the ruling Awami League scrapped the caretaker system, amid public protests, in line with a 2010 Supreme Court determination that it was unconstitutional.

The BNP and its allies boycotted the national election of 2014 after the Awami League refused to reintroduce the system.

The Awami League subsequently won a landslide victory as more than half of parliament’s 300 seats were uncontested.

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