Sun, Dec 28, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Bangladeshi ‘begums’ battle on for ballots

AFP , DHAKA

Bangladesh’s two main political leaders criss-crossed the country yesterday in a final day of campaigning ahead of the country’s first democratic election in seven years.

Tomorrow’s polls signal the end of two years of rule by an army-backed regime that stepped in after months of political violence brought the country to a standstill.

The two women who have dominated the political scene for the past two decades — Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — were both to deliver televised addresses to the nation later yesterday.

The two former premiers — nicknamed the “battling begums” — were jailed on corruption charges by the caretaker regime but then released to contest the elections.

After holding a series of rallies outside of Dhaka late on Friday, Zia returned to the capital, going door to door throughout the night, appealing for votes.

Sheikh Hasina traveled to the second biggest city of Chittagong early yesterday, seeking votes in a region considered a BNP stronghold.

Zia has covered more of the country in her campaigning while Sheikh Hasina has held several video conference rallies amid reports that Islamic militants are plotting to kill her.

Some 50,000 troops have been deployed across Bangladesh and 600,000 police officers will man polling booths in a bid to eliminate election fraud and terror attacks.

Police said at least two dozen militants had been arrested in its nationwide drive ahead of the polls. Explosives and at least 25 bombs were also seized in raids.

Poll analyst Nazim Kamran Chaudhury, who has correctly predicted the outcome of three previous elections, said the Awami League would probably win the popular vote, but the BNP would win more seats.

“It’s a very difficult election to predict,” Chaudhury said. “If all things are equal, based on past trends, even if the popular vote swings towards the Awami League alliance, the BNP will still have the greater number of seats.”

He said first-time voters — around 32 percent of the electorate — could create some surprises.

“But even first-time voters don’t have much of a choice. It’s still the same old bunch of crooks,” he said.

The winner of tomorrow’s election, either a single party or a coalition of parties, needs 151 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly.

For the first time, voters have the choice of casting a “no” vote by ticking a “none of the above” box on their ballot papers.

Manzoor Hasan, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, expected an Awami League government to come to power but only after a hung parliament and a period of intense horse-trading.

“Corruption remains fresh in the minds of people from the last BNP-led government. It’s also been a key part of the caretaker government’s reforms so will cost BNP some votes,” Hasan said.

Commentators say tomorrow’s polls will be the fairest in the country after the current regime created a digital electoral roll eliminating 12.7 million fake “ghost” voters. There are some 200,000 electoral observers, including 2,500 from abroad.

Bangladesh has a long history of coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The Awami League and the BNP have often been accused of anti-democratic tactics, with both regularly boycotting parliament and staging national strikes when in opposition.

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