Bangladesh candidate rhetoric heats up as poll nears

Candidates in Monday’s Bangladesh election to restore democracy after two years of emergency rule traded heated charges of corruption and vote-rigging in the final days of campaigning, fanning fears of post-election violence.

If that occurs, it could scupper hopes the new government would be stable and attract much-needed investment and aid to the impoverished South Asian country of more than 140-million.

The December 29 vote will usher out of office a military-backed interim government that one top contender, former premier Begum Khaleda Zia, says is conspiring to help rival Sheikh Hasina win.

For her part Hasina, seen by some analysts as the likely winner, accuses Khaleda and her sons of massive corruption and vote tampering.

The rhetoric has intensified as the midnight on Saturday deadline nears for campaigning to end.

”The BNP, Khaleda Zia and her sons had pushed the country into serious political turmoil and ruined the economy,” Hasina told a rally in the capital Dhaka late on Friday.

Khaleda, speaking to supporters at about a dozen campaign gatherings overnight, accused Hasina and her party of causing irreparable damage to Bangladesh and its economy during her five-year rule to 2001.

”They have a history of giving false assurances and not delivering them while the BNP helped the people through many bad times,” Khaleda said.

”If voted to power again, we will do even more for you, no matter whoever says what about us,” she said.

Khaleda addresses her last pre-election rally in Dhaka on Saturday afternoon, while Hasina winds up her campaigning in the port city of Chittagong.

Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alternated in power for 15 years till 2006, and are key contenders again.

The election is a crucial test for the Indian Ocean nation, where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line and frequent floods and cyclones add to economic woes.

Military rule, politically motivated violence and strikes have often disrupted democracy over Bangladesh’s 37 years of independence.

The interim government and Election Commission have introduced electoral reforms including a computerised voters roll with photographs, and caps on candidates’ spending. International monitors say so far, the election process looks credible.

No guarantee
But there is no guarantee the election will usher Bangladesh to a sustainable democracy.

The candidates’ charges against one another may have set the stage for the losers or their supporters to claim they were cheated. That has happened in past elections and brought protests, strikes and deadly violence.

Even without such incidents, the winner will face major challenges in reducing endemic corruption and trying to sustain the economy in the face of the global slowdown.

Ahead of the vote, the authorities have deployed troops and other security personnel to keep law and order and protect Hasina and Khaleda. Both have said their lives are at risk.

Police are also keeping a tight watch against Islamist militants, who intelligence reports say are regrouping and may attack ahead of the vote.

”We are very well aware [of such threats] and fully prepared to ensure fool-proof security and save the lives of our politicians,” national police chief Noor Mohammad told reporters late on Friday. – Reuters

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