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Poll panel bar on Ershad sparks anger

Dhaka, Dec. 27 (Reuters): Angry protesters attacked government offices and damaged vehicles in northern Bangladesh today after authorities rejected applications by former army ruler and Jatiya Party chief Hossain Mohammad Ershad to contest next month’s elections.

Election officials declared Ershad’s applications to contest five constituencies “unacceptable”, saying he was not eligible after the supreme court asked him to surrender over a graft case.

Protesters wrecked at least 30 vehicles and vandalised the local election and district administration offices in Ershad’s northern home district of Rangpur, witnesses said.

More protests were held in the neighbouring district of Lalmonirhat, another constituency from where Ershad had planned to contest the elections. His supporters said: “Stop conspiring against Ershad, give him a chance to fight the polls”.

They called for a day-long strike in five northern districts tomorrow, local reporters said by telephone.

The supreme court yesterday upheld Ershad’s two-year jail term for squandering state funds in a deal to buy patrol boats from Japan while in power.

But Ershad, whose party is allied with former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League, alleged that there was a “plot to keep me off the race”.

A senior Awami League official said his party’s participation could also be in doubt.

“If Ershad’s participation in the coming vote is prevented by a conspiracy ... we may also rethink our decision to go to the polls,” Obaidul Quader said.

Earlier, election commission officials said a record 4,146 candidates had registered to contest the January 22 election. This is double the number of nominees who contested in the last election five years ago.

Participants include a four-party alliance led by former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party as well as the 14-party group headed by Hasina, her main rival.

The Awami League said Ershad was being punished for refusing to form an alliance with Khaleda and that the court verdict was “remote-controlled”.

Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh for almost nine years and was ousted in a people’s revolt jointly led by Khaleda and Hasina, said he could contest the polls while fighting a legal battle. But the election commission said the final decision on whether Ershad could contest rested now with the law ministry.

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