By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia on Tuesday urged Bangladeshis to march to the capital Dhaka at the weekend to protest against what she called "farcical" elections on January 5, and declared: "Democracy is dead."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League want to do away with a tradition of introducing a caretaker government to oversee elections
The opposition, led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) head Khaleda, says it will not participate unless an interim government is installed and Hasina steps down.
With the BNP's boycott, more than half of the 300 parliament seats will go uncontested, dimming hopes that an inclusive ballot could restore stability in one of the world's poorest countries.
Khaleda, a former premier, urged people to stage the protest on Sunday.
"Please come forward to resist the farcical elections on January 5 which the government is staging to steal power," she said. "It is not an election but a shameless selection," she said, referring to the 154 seats the Awami League will win uncontested.
"Democracy is dead today," she said, adding: "Come forward to save democracy."
The European Union and the United States have decided not to send observers to monitor the elections as most parties are not taking part in the polls.
BURNED TO DEATH
The crisis has spilled onto the streets, where people are shot, beaten or burned to death daily in clashes between rival groups and police. More than 200 people have died in political violence this year, half of them since November 25, when the Election Commission announced a date for the vote.
Rolling general strikes staged by the opposition and blockades of roads, rail lines and waterways are also hurting the $22 billion garment industry, which supplies some of the world's top retailers, employs four million people and accounts for 80 percent of the country's export earnings.
Hasina and Khaleda have dominated politics in Bangladesh for more than two decades, and mutual suspicion bordering on hatred has blocked attempts at reconciliation between them.
Compounding the chaos, activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an Islamist ally of the BNP, have staged violent protests across the country this month as a tribunal pursues its leaders for atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah was hanged on December 12 in the first war crimes execution in Bangladesh. He was accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces, who were eventually defeated with India's help.
(Editing by Pravin Char)