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Bangladesh Faces Political Gridlock

Bangladesh, born violently in 1971, has never had it easy. Since independence, the former east of Pakistan has had more than 20 attempted coups and extended periods of martial law.  A frequent victim of devastating cyclones and other natural disasters, the predominately Muslim South Asian nation has struggled to feed its people and rise out of poverty.  For the past year-and-half, Bangladesh has been run by a caretaker government backed by the military.  VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Dhaka and reports efforts to get Bangladesh back on a democracy track are moving slowly.

On the congested streets of the capital of the country with the world's highest population density, horns blare in frustration with Dhaka's notorious traffic jams.

Bangladesh is also suffering from political gridlock.

The caretaker government, backed by the army, has been in power far longer than it or anyone else predicted.  Elections were supposed to have been held in January, 2007, shortly after the caretaker government took over. The polling was postponed following weeks of political violence in which 30 people died and hundreds of others were injured.

Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the interim leaders say there is sufficient calm to set Bangladesh back on a democratic path, with the first step being a dialog between the government and the political parties.

The country's de facto external affairs minister, who is called the foreign adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, tells VOA News the government is already in discussion with some of the parties.

"This dialog is currently taking place," Chowdhury said.  "To date, we have reasons to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty.  It is progressing well.  We hope that it is the pressure of public opinion that will also create some kind of a consensus between the participating parties."

The parties say it is actually pressure applied by the military, not public opinion, which they are feeling.  And, so far, the two largest parties, which together garner support of an estimated 85 percent of the electorate, are not yielding to that pressure.

They insist that their jailed top leaders - both former prime ministers - be freed, because they are the only people who can lead any talks with the government.

In custody and facing corruption charges are the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh National Party's Khaldeda Zia.  The two political matriarchs are bitter rivals and violent clashes between their supporters in late 2006 led to the intervention of the army, as Bangladesh descended into chaos.

Many  Bangladeshis welcomed that move by their respected military.  But BNP Secretary General Khondkar Delwar Hossain tells VOA News that, amid the political gridlock and spiraling food prices, the caretakers have worn out their welcome.

"The people are 100 percent against this regime I tell you," Hossain said.  "And, people are suffering so much. They cannot publish the real news.  They have been gagged.  The judges cannot perform their duties according to the constitution, according to the law.  Everybody is being interfered [with]."

Amnesty International accuses the government of arresting people for political motives and using special courts that weaken the chances for fair trials by restricting access to defense lawyers and denying bail to those charged under the emergency regulations.

The military-backed government has removed most of the top layer of the traditional political establishment, with the arrests of 170 politicians and business people.

Many politicians and analysts here expect the two rival former prime ministers, known as the Battling Begums, to be convicted on graft and abuse of power charges.

The two top parties - and others which are sympathetic - could end up boycotting the planned December election, meaning an exiting caretaker government would have no credible victors with which to pass the torch.

The president of the JSD - the acronym for the National Socialist Party - Hasanul Haq Inu, says it will be a farcical election if the Awami League and BNP do not participate, because Bangladesh has waited 30 years for unbiased polling pitting the two dominant parties against each other.

"It will be a very dangerous political situation and the present scenario will be totally changed," Inu said.  "Minus the two political parties, the caretaker government should not hold a parliamentary election."

Acting Foreign Minister Chowdhury remains optimistic.

"Following the elections there will be a government that will be able to sustain the positive reforms that have been undertaken by this government and would be  able to bring better changes in the political structures and political style that will truly reflect the kind of pluralism that pervades this society," Chowdhury said.

For that to happen, the longtime rivals, the Awami League and the BNP would have to work together or at least be willing to peacefully play the opposition role when out of power.  There is no historical precedent in Bangladesh for that.

Awami League senior figure Tofail Ahmed, a former commerce minister, tells VOA News a frustrated public is now demanding the two major parties cooperate, for the sake of political and economic stability.

"I am sure, at the present moment, most of the political parties have decided, in their party forum, that all of us should work together and we should come to a national consensus.  And, that is not by the government but within the political parties," Ahmed said.

The fragile political atmosphere also faces growing economic storm clouds.

The World Bank says Bangladesh is among the countries at risk for severe
political unrest, if food prices keep rising.

The country's oil importer and distribution monopoly is proposing price hikes of up to 80 percent, another potential catalyst for a resurgence of public protest.

There is also a festering feud between war veterans and more than 1,000 alleged war criminals, accused of collaborating with the Pakistanis during the 1971 independence struggle.  The veterans, regarded as heroes here, say purging the alleged traitors from politics is even more crucial than disqualifying corrupt candidates.  That emotional campaign is another flash point that could ignite on the streets of Bangladesh. 

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