Bangladesh's opposition begins strike as election looms

International election monitors have already withdrawn

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Opponents of the government in Bangladesh have begun a two-day strike in protest at Sunday's election.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is boycotting the vote because the government refused its request that the election be overseen by a neutral administration.

Tensions are high, with local media reporting arson attacks on polling stations overnight.

At least 100 people have been killed during the election campaign.

Bitter enemies

The BNP called for a nationwide 48-hour strike after its leader Khaleda Zia on Friday urged supporters to "completely boycott" what she called a "scandalous farce" of an election.

Key election issues

  • Political stability
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Corruption
  • Rising food prices
  • Industrial accidents
  • Human rights violations

She accused the government of placing her under house arrest - something the authorities deny.

The strike is only the latest in a string of protests by the BNP and its allies - including the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party - that has seen a blockade of roads, railways and waterways and the closure of shops, schools and offices.

Scores of opposition supporters have died in police shootings and dozens of commuters have been burnt to death by protesters throwing petrol bombs at strike-defying buses.

There were reports overnight of clashes between supporters of the rival parties and the torching of at least 13 polling stations.

One voter in the capital, Dhaka, Hazera Begum, told Associated Press: "I want to go to vote, but I am afraid of violence. If the situation is normal and my neighbours go, I may go."

Supporters of the prime minister rally outside her party HQ in Dhaka, 4 Jan Supporters of the prime minister rally outside her party HQ in Dhaka
Bus on fire in Dhaka on 2 January 2014 The run-up to the election has been marred by outbreaks of violence

Analysts say the outcome of Sunday's election is not in doubt.

Many of the seats will be uncontested because of the opposition's boycott, meaning the governing Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will remain in power.

Both the US and the EU have refused to send observers, further raising questions over the electoral process, correspondents say.

All elections since 1991 have been held under a neutral caretaker administration to ensure that voting is not fixed.

But the Awami League abolished the caretaker system in 2010, arguing that it was no longer necessary. It used its two-thirds majority in parliament to make the change.

A special envoy of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came to Dhaka last month with the aim of getting the two sides to talk to each other but the dialogue never got off the ground.

The government has insisted that the BNP should take part in the polls within the existing constitutional framework. It says that the opposition should discuss any changes it wants after the vote.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia - who are bitter political enemies - have alternated from government to opposition for most of the past two decades.

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