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Bangladesh PM says new polls depend on opposition ending violence

Source: Reuters - Mon, 6 Jan 2014 15:50 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* PM Hasina wins poll boycotted by main opposition

* Opposition BNP leader Khaleda calls for new elections (Adds comment from opposition leader, detail on turnout)

By Nandita Bose and Serajul Quadir

DHAKA, Jan 6 (Reuters) - A day after rolling to victory in an election boycotted by the main opposition and plagued by deadly unrest, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held to her stance that fresh polls could be called only if her rivals halt violence.

With the opposition already having called a 48-hour strike and seven people killed in clashes on Monday, the crisis showed no sign of easing, risking further unrest and damage to the $22 billion garment industry that accounts for 80 percent of exports.

Hasina's Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a contest that was shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a farce by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). With fewer than half the seats contested, the outcome was never in doubt.

"An election can happen any time when BNP comes for a dialogue, but they must stop violence," Hasina, 64, said on the lawn at her official residence.

Many BNP leaders are in jail or in hiding, and party chief Begum Khaleda Zia says she is under virtual house arrest, which the government denies.

"The ongoing crisis will not be resolved by keeping me virtually confined to my house and carrying out oppression on the opposition," Khaleda said in a statement on Monday calling for the poll to be scrapped and a new election called.

Hasina and Khaleda, 68, are bitter rivals who have alternated as prime minister for all but two of the past 22 years.

ROBUST GROWTH

Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, said the standoff imperils the momentum of five years of robust growth in the impoverished nation of 160 million.

The economy grew six percent in the fiscal year that ended in June, and multilateral agencies expect growth of 5.5 to 5.8 percent in the current year.

"The longer the impasse, the longer Bangladesh suffers," Rahman said. "And unfortunately everyone understands this other than our two top leaders."

The BNP denounces Hasina's scrapping of the practice of having a caretaker government oversee elections. The Awami League says the interim government system has proved a failure.

With the BNP on the sidelines and voters worried about violence, turnout was expected to have been low.

An election official, who declined to be identified because the figure was not final, told Reuters that turnout was nearly 40 percent. A monitoring organisation, the Election Working Group, had put turnout at 30 percent, according to the Dhaka Tribune.

In the last election, in 2008, a record 83 percent of voters cast ballots. In a 1996 election boycotted by the Awami League, 21 percent voted.

The European Union, a duty free market for nearly 60 percent of Bangladesh's garment exports, refused to send election observers, as did the United States and the Commonwealth, a grouping of 53 mainly former British colonies.

"It is ... disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box and that turnout in most other constituencies was low," Sayeeda Warsi, a senior British Foreign Office minister, said in a statement.

Five people were killed on the outskirts of Dhaka on Monday in a clash between supporters, with two more fatalities in rural areas, continuing a spate of violence that saw 18 people killed during polling on Sunday and more than 100 in the run-up to the election. (Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alister Doyle)

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