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Bangladesh Postpones Elections, Declares State of Emergency


Controversial parliamentary elections in Bangladesh have been postponed indefinitely by the president, who has also stepped aside as head of the caretaker administration and imposed a state of emergency. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the decision has calmed tensions in a country paralyzed by opposition strikes, but political uncertainty remains.

President Iajuddin Ahmed's moves came as the country reeled under months of crippling strikes and transportation blockades.

The protest actions were called by one of the country's two main political alliances, led by the Awami League, which had also said it would boycott the elections.

The president said free and fair elections were not possible without the participation of one of the country's two major political groups.

It was a moment of victory for the Awami League alliance, which had been in opposition during the parliament that ended last year.

The alliance had accused President Ahmed of bias in favor of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which ran the last government, and demanded that he step aside or face more street protests aimed at disrupting the polls.

Awami League General Secretary Abdul Jalil says his party will suspend the protests and cooperate with a new interim administration if the party's concerns are answered.

He says if a free and fair election is organized, and a correct voter list is prepared by an independent election commission, he thinks it will solve the problem.

Political analysts say the decision to postpone the elections has defused the confrontation for the time being. The state of emergency has been welcomed by ordinary Bangladeshis, many of whom want a return to normalcy after the violent political standoff that has wracked the country.

However, the executive director of Dhaka's Center for Policy Dialogue, Debapriya Bhattacharya, notes that the task of finding compromises acceptable to the two bickering political alliances will not be easy.

"The main challenge will be to create an enabling environment for a free and fair poll," he said. "Keeping that objective in mind, one will have to see how the other institutions which have bearing on that environment are reconstituted or strengthened."

The Awami League has two core demands: first, revision of the electoral rolls, or voter list, which the party says contain 14 million fake names. Second, revamping of the election commission to ensure that it is neutral.

The party accuses its opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, of packing the civil service and election commission with loyal officers who it alleges were planning to rig the elections in the BNP's favor.

President Ahmed, who remains head of state, says the country will prepare for new elections "within the shortest possible time," but there are concerns that the polls could be delayed by months. Analysts point out that revision of electoral rolls requires considerable work - which could mean that the country will face a prolonged period of emergency rule.

A former professor on South Asian affairs at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, S.D. Muni, says the danger of martial law always lurks in Bangladesh, a country with a history of military rule and violently bitter politics.

"[The] danger is he can continue to extend this emergency, and the possibility if no political compromise is worked out, that chaos or even the army being brought in to rule the country remains there," he said.

Debapriya Bhattacharya agrees that there is still the risk of a return to protests and violence.

"It has definitely brought a respite because the country was moving toward a unilateral poll, which was a bit of a relief, he said. "But of course it has also a sense of concern, because how the democratic scenario will unfold, that has to be seen."

The next few months could be uncharted territory for the country, whose 35 year-old history has been marked by repeated political turbulence.