Opposition activists group rally in Dhaka to demand early elections

About 15,000 opposition activists rallied in Bangladesh's capital Thursday, accusing the government of stacking an election commission and trying to force the creation of a new voter list that they fear will favor the ruling coalition.

The opposition parties also plan a dawn-to-dusk general strike across the country on Sunday.

Rallies and paralyzing general strikes are common opposition tactics in Bangladesh to embarass the government.

However, in the current crisis opposition parties are threatening to boycott elections. The country switched from a dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy in 1991.

The voting list controversy started last month when the Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Aziz ordered for preparation of the new list despite the objections of the opposition.

Aziz was unable to convince the two other commissioners to create new voter list for the 2007 national elections. The government added two more commissioners to the election office, bringing its size to five. The opposition wanted the old list to be updated.

At the rally, the opposition parties demanded Aziz resign for his alleged partisan role in ordering the new voter list.

"We want fair elections, but three commissioners are serving the ruling coalition," said opposition spokesman Abdul Jalil at the rally. He warned there would be no elections if the government did not back down.

The opposition also staged rallies and called for several general strikes last year for government's resignation.

The opposition has also been boycotting parliament for months, accusing the government of autocratic behavior.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's coalition government has denied all the opposition the allegations.

Opposition parties have regularly boycotted parliament after 1991 transition prior to elections.

No violence was reported at the rally, as dozens of police stood guard in downtown Dhaka's venue, a Dhaka Metropolitan police official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with official policy. Organizers estimated 15,000 people attended the rally; police put the figure closer to 10,000.

The opposition parties have been accusing the government of incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism.

They also accuse the government of failing to curb rising Islamic militancy and violence including several fatal bombings in the secular country, which has a Muslim majority.

Zia's five-year term expires in October 2006, and a caretaker government will run the country until elections in January 2007, reports the AP.

D.M.