DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Schools and businesses were shuttered and transportation was disrupted in major cities across Bangladesh on Wednesday as opposition parties led a general strike against a constitutional amendment they say will allow the government to rig elections.
The Ministry of Home Affairs said thousands of security personnel were deployed in the capital, Dhaka, to prevent violence, which often occurs during such protests.
Clashes between protesters and police were reported in various parts of the country.
Police scuffled with some opposition lawmakers in a melee near Parliament. Zainal Abdin Farooque, chief whip of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was hospitalized with a head injury.
Police cordoned off the headquarters of the party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
The party’s key partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, and a number of smaller Islamic parties are backing the strike.
The constitutional change removed a 15-year-old requirement that general elections be overseen by a nonpartisan caretaker government after the end of an administration’s five-year term.
The government pushed the change, which was approved by Parliament last week. The opposition says the amendment will allow Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to rig the next elections, due in 2014.
The caretaker system came under fire in 2007 after a military-backed caretaker government stayed beyond its mandated three months and delayed the voting by about two years.
Wednesday’s strike disrupted operations at the country’s main seaport in Chittagong, which handles nearly 80 percent of all cargo.
Business groups criticized the strike and urged the sides to settle their differences through talks.
“Why this strike? Why this unrest? The country cannot be run like this,” said A.K. Azad, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
On Tuesday, at least six vehicles were set on fire in Dhaka on the eve of the strike. No one was injured, fire official Mohammad Morshed said. It was not immediately clear who set the fires.
Home Minister Sahara Khatun said the government would do whatever it needs to maintain order, while the opposition said it would take tougher anti-government actions if the government uses force to suppress its protests.
A clash was reported Tuesday between Zia’s supporters and police in a southern city, and protests were reported in other parts of the country.
At least 20 people, including four police, were injured in Chittagong on Tuesday when security officials fired tear gas and charged with batons to disperse a rally, the Daily Star newspaper said.
The country’s political situation was further complicated Sunday when a court ordered the arrest of Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, after police charged him with organizing a grenade attack on an opposition rally in 2004. The attack killed 24 supporters of then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina. Hasina was unhurt when more than two dozen grenades ripped through the rally as she was speaking.
Investigators say Rahman planned the attack to eliminate political opponents. Zia’s party denies the allegation.
Rahman, a leader of the opposition party, has been living in London since 2008. He also faces several corruption charges.
A general strike is a common opposition tactic to embarrass the government in Bangladesh, a fragile parliamentary democracy that has a history of two successful and 19 failed military coups since 1971, when the country won independence from Pakistan.