Bangladesh PM Hasina holds rare talks with opposition before elections

Talks between members of Bangladesh's ruling party, the Awami League (AL), and representatives of the opposition, were held on Thursday evening, where both sides discussed the modalities for the upcoming elections and attempted to iron out their disagreements.

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The meeting assumes significance as the ruling party had earlier rejected any calls for dialogue with her opponents.

But in an abrupt about-face, the prime minister hosted members of the opposition coalition at her Dhaka residence.

Participants at the meeting included 23 leaders from the Awami League-led 14-party alliance and 20 leaders from the opposition alliance Jatiya Oikya Front, led by former foreign minister and politician Kamal Hossain.

The gathering provided an opportunity for both sides to sit together and seek ways to ensure a free and fair parliamentary election, expected to take place at the end of December.

The meeting came days after the country's main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, was given a fresh sentence that will keep her behind bars for 10 years. The ruling has thrown the already beleaguered principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), into a state of total disarray.

During the talks, the opposition raised several demands, such as the dissolution of the current parliament and handing over power to a caretaker government as well as the release of political prisoners, including Zia.

"We didn't find any specific solution there," said opposition leader Hossain. At a press conference that followed, Hossain noted that Hasina "will inform her final decision later."

Stalemate remains

But the ruling Awami League's General Secretary Obaidul Quader said the meeting was satisfactory. "We agreed on some points," he told reporters afterwards.

Quader, however, stressed that the opposition's main demand cannot be met.

"Their main demand was the dissolution of the parliament and appointment of a neutral government which is not possible," Quader said. "We won't go beyond the constitution."

But BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the formation of an interim government was necessary to ensure a "level-playing field."

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The caretaker government is an arrangement Bangladesh introduced in 1991 to ensure that elections could be held in a free and fair manner. But Hasina's government abolished the system through constitutional amendment in 2009.

After the meeting, BNP's Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said his party had raised the issue of Zia's imprisonment. "We mentioned the issue (Zia's release) and she (PM Hasina) said talks could be held in future in this regard," Alamgir underlined.

Releasing political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition alliance. But the government has so far maintained that these are "legal matters."

"PM Hasina said that this (Zia's punishment) is a legal matter. This can't be a part of the political dialogue," Quader said. "The graft cases against Zia were filed during the period of the previous caretaker government."

A historic divide

Hasina and Khaleda, who between them have ruled Bangladesh for decades, are bitter rivals and the BNP says its leader has been jailed on trumped up charges to keep her out of politics.

Zia's is the only inmate in an otherwise abandoned 19th-century jail and her health has deteriorated in custody. Her physician said she was suffering from diabetes and that arthritis had rendered her left hand useless.

Lawyers for Zia have accused the government of putting her health at risk by refusing her specialised care in prison.

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Hasina and Zia alternated power for two decades until Zia boycotted national polls in 2014, sparking violence across the Muslim-majority democracy of over 160 million people.

"The positive thing is that a political dialogue between the two sides actually took place," Bangladeshi political scientist Shantanu Majumder told DW. "Those who believe that everything will be solved in just one meeting are wrong."

"This was just the first meeting. Both sides only presented their standpoints," he said.

More talks are scheduled to take place in the coming days, raising hopes among observers that both sides will resolve their disagreements amicably and violence won't mar the elections this time round.