Dhaka, Bangladesh — Tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the Bangladeshi capital on Saturday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government and the installation of a caretaker before the next general elections due to be held in early 2024.
Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, reached the protest venue in Dhaka overnight amid tight security as Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan warned against the disastrous consequences in case of violence of the assembly.
Hasina and his ruling Awami League party, which returned to power in 2018 for the third consecutive time, have repeatedly rejected the opposition’s demand, saying an interim government goes against the law. spirit of the country’s constitution.
The Golapbagh Hall in Dhaka was packed on Saturday morning and crowds spilled into the streets as opposition activists chanted slogans such as “Down with Hasina” and “We want a fair election”.
Saturday’s rally was the main opposition party’s 10th after it announced in September that it would stage protests in 10 major cities across the country. All previous rallies outside Dhaka have drawn huge crowds despite challenges, including what the party said were politically motivated transport strikes and intimidation by security agencies and the ruling party. The police and the ruling party have denied the allegations.
The rally in Dhaka was held under heightened tension after police stormed the party headquarters following clashes between police and opposition supporters on Wednesday, leaving at least one dead and 50 wounded. Police arrested over 400 opposition activists.
On Friday, detectives raided the homes of two senior party leaders, including general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. Both were denied bail.
Zahiruddin Swapan, a two-time former opposition lawmaker and party spokesman, told The Associated Press that by Saturday afternoon, around 1.5 million opposition supporters had joined the rally.
“We want a free and fair election. To facilitate this, this repressive government must go, parliament must be dissolved and a new electoral commission must be installed,” he said. “They came to power through vote rigging and intimidation.”
Faruk Hossain, a spokesman for the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told AP the venue has a maximum capacity of 30,000 people and if adjacent streets were taken into account, the rally could not have attracted more than 60. 000 people.
Witnesses said up to 100,000 opposition activists joined the rally.
An election-period interim government system was introduced into the constitution in 1996 to oversee national elections, but was overturned in 2011 under Hasina through the passage of a constitutional amendment and after the Supreme Court ruled that the system was unconstitutional.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 election and the 2018 voting results were disputed due to allegations of voter fraud by the ruling party, which won with an overwhelming majority.
On Saturday, seven BNP deputies present at the rally announced their resignation from parliament.
Fifteen Western embassies issued a joint statement on Tuesday calling on the government to allow freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and fair elections, with the UN issuing a similar statement the following day.
Bangladeshi politics have been polarized, with Hasina and Zia being the most influential rivals. Although the country is a parliamentary democracy, it has a violent history of coups and counter-coups.