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By Steve Herman
27 December 2008
Voters in Bangladesh go to the polls on December 29. The election is intended to restore democracy to the South Asian nation of 150 million people, who are predominately Muslim. The long-delayed election comes after a nearly two-year period of emergency rule by an army-backed caretaker government.
The two top contenders to lead Bangladesh are familiar faces and bitter rivals.
Sheikh Hasina, of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia, of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, both served as prime minister. They rotated in and out of power during a tumultuous 15-year period with the party in opposition accused of violence and intimidation against the other.
|Former prime minister Shaikh Hasina of the Awami League, 26 Dec 2008|
Two years ago, during a period of bloodshed on the streets, political paralysis and widespread disgust with endemic corruption the military felt compelled to intervene.
The army installed an interim government under emergency law. The caretakers conducted a widespread sweep to try to rid Bangladesh of graft politics.
Among those caught in the dragnet were the two former prime ministers, known as the "Battling Begums." Their release from jail and freedom to campaign was a non-negotiable condition of their respective parties to contest the election.
Without the two women the election would not have been deemed credible by very many voters here.
Zia claims a late surge by the BNP is putting her on the path to victory. But others contend the Awami League and Hasina are still ahead.
|A poster of Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia flashing a victory sign in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24 Dec 2008|
"Only you people can snatch another victory on 29th December by voting for us," she said. "This election is very important for you and for the people of Bangladesh, because this election is a revolution against the terrorists, the corrupt and the looters. I believe people will give their verdicts based on that."
Hasina has released a manifesto outlining sweeping development for Bangladesh - one of the world's poorest countries.
Zia contends her party, the BNP, is the better choice to pull Bangladesh out of deep poverty and its heavy dependence on foreign aid.
"These sheathes [symbol of BNP] symbolize strength and development, so whenever people voted for this symbol, there were much development in the country," she said. "So I handover this symbol to our candidates."
On a more alarming note, Zia alleges she is a target for assassination before election day.
Hasina, who has seen a half dozen attempts on her life over the years, is accusing a trailing Zia of a dramatic ploy to scuttle the election at the last minute.
U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty has appeared recently twice alongside Sheik Hasina of the Awami League. But he tells VOA News he is not playing favorites and desires to meet again with BNP leader Zia before the election.
"We have no preferred candidate," he said. "I've reached out to both of the former prime ministers. I've assured them that the United States has important interests in Bangladesh, wants to see a return to democracy and will work well with whatever government comes to power."
The U.S. ambassador is calling for the election winner to focus on three priorities - restoring full democracy, development and denying opportunities for terrorism to flourish.
"Any successful government in Bangladesh has to address all three," he said. "If the democracy does not function well, you will see ungoverned space, you will see much slower economic development than you would otherwise. If development doesn't occur you will have a lot more poor people, you will have a lot more opportunities for bad guys to do bad things."
The ambassador says he is convinced Bangladesh's military is sincere about removing itself from politics and commends the army for keeping in step with its own timetable for the transition back to an elected civilian government.