Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday to demand that the current administration step down and prepare for new elections.
Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which lost in a landslide in 2008 to the ruling Awami League, are calling for a non-partisan caretaker government to run the next general election.
The BNP leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, warned that elections scheduled for 2014 will be rigged in favor of the Awami League if a neutral caretaker regime is not quickly installed.
The BNP’s Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, also participated and demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina quit.
Zia further warned that her party and affiliates will hold a general strike on March 29 and continue to protest unless the caretaker scheme is restored by June 11.
Hasina removed the caretaker system last year.
“We will announce a series of protests across the country if the government fails to accept our demand,'' Zia told the boisterous crowd.
“Make a formal announcement regarding restoration of non-party neutral caretaker government. Otherwise, we will announce tougher program from a rally on June 11,” Zia warned the government.
The BBC reported that the protest was the largest public assembly by the BNP since 2008 and took place under an intensive security presence of thousands of armed soldiers and riot police. About 100,000 people are estimated to have attended the rally, while most schools and businesses were closed for the day.
A correspondent for Al Jazeera, Nicholas Haque, wrote: Local media are reporting that police at district level were ordered to arrest any opposition activists headed towards the capital ... [and] hundreds of people have been arrested.
Haque added: Bus, ferry, train services have also been disrupted, and so it has been very difficult for commuters to head towards the capital, even if they were just going in to work. Despite all of these measures, crowds have been gathering and they are here to listen to the speeches of their leader.”
During her speech, Zia also criticized the government’s heavy-handed policing of the demonstration.
“The government could not keep people from joining the rally, although they barred them everywhere while torturing many. What did Awami League try to prove by paralyzing the capital?” she said, according to the Daily Star newspaper of Bangladesh.
“No one has the right to make people suffer like this. What kind of democracy is it when armed cadres of the ruling party bring out procession under police guard while the opposition is not let hold a peaceful rally?”
Since Bangladesh’s last military ruler Hussain Mohammad Ershad stepped down in 1990, two women, Zia and Hasina, have alternately ruled the impoverished nation.