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Monday January 6, 2014 MYT 8:40:02 PM
Monday January 6, 2014 MYT 8:41:00 PM
by nandita bose AND serajul quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - A day after rolling to victory in an election boycotted by the main opposition and plagued by deadly unrest, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held to her stance that fresh polls could be called only if her rivals put a halt to violence.
With the opposition already having called a 48-hour strike and seven people killed in clashes on Monday, the crisis showed no sign of easing, risking further unrest and damage to the $22 billion (13.4 billion pounds) garment industry that accounts for 80 percent of exports.
Hasina's Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a contest that was shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a farce by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). With fewer than half the seats contested, the outcome was never in doubt.
"An election can happen any time when BNP comes for a dialogue, but they must stop violence," Hasina, 64, said on the lawn at her official residence.
Many BNP leaders are in jail or in hiding, and party chief Begum Khaleda Zia says she is under virtual house arrest, which the government denies.
"She (Hasina) has not given any hope or suggested any practical options for addressing the serious political stalemate that is affecting the country," said Osman Farruk, a former education minister and an adviser to Khaleda.
Hasina and Khaleda, 68, have alternated as prime minister for all but two of the past 22 years. The two are bitter rivals.
Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, said the standoff imperils the momentum of five years of robust growth in the impoverished nation of 160 million.
The economy grew six percent in the fiscal year that ended in June, and multilateral agencies expect growth of 5.5 to 5.8 percent in the current year.
"The longer the impasse, the longer Bangladesh suffers," Rahman said. "And unfortunately everyone understands this other than our two top leaders."
The BNP, which had demanded a halt to Sunday's election, denounces Hasina's scrapping of the practice of having a caretaker government oversee elections. The Awami League says the interim government system has proved a failure.
With the BNP on the sidelines and voters worried about violence, turnout was expected to have been low. Official figures were not available 24 hours after polls had closed, but a monitoring group put turnout at 30 percent.
In the last election, in 2008, a record 83 percent of voters cast ballots. In a 1996 election boycotted by the Awami League, 21 percent voted.
The European Union, a duty free market for nearly 60 percent of Bangladesh's garment exports, refused to send election observers, as did the United States and the Commonwealth, a grouping of 53 mainly former British colonies.
"It is ... disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box and that turnout in most other constituencies was low," Sayeeda Warsi, a senior British Foreign Office minister, said in a statement.
Five people were killed on the outskirts of Dhaka on Monday in a clash between supporters, with two more fatalities in rural areas, continuing a spate of violence that saw 18 people killed during polling on Sunday and more than 100 in the run-up to the election.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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