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Bangladesh Takes Partial Step Back on Road to Democracy

Political parties in Bangladesh are expressing disappointment that the military-backed government is not fully lifting restrictions on campaigning. A partial relaxation has been announced for national elections to be held in December. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from our South Asia bureau in New Delhi.

The chief adviser of the military-backed government of Bangladesh has announced national elections will be held in the third week of December. But Fakhruddin Ahmed, in a nationally televised speech Monday, said it was premature to allow open campaigning. He said, indoor politics, however would be allowed to resume immediately. That means political meetings can be held but no mass outdoor rallies will be permitted. Such large gatherings in the past have turned violent.

The assistant director of the Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, Shahnaz Karim, calls the chief adviser's announcement a positive step.

"There was a lot of speculation as to whether there would even be an election," Karim said. "This will now end the speculation and focus the mind of the nation on the elections."

Officials of the major political parties, however, are expressing dissatisfaction that Mr. Ahmed made no mention of precisely when the state of emergency would be lifted. The caretaker leader said such a move would be made at a timely point before the balloting.

Political analyst Karim says it is too much to expect the caretaker government to end all restrictions immediately.

"What the political parties were expecting was a full relaxation and that, of course, would have been ideal," she said. "But given the transitional phase of the country I think this incremental approach makes more sense."

The head of the caretaker government also announced a dialogue with the political parties will begin May 22. But he gave no indication that the rival leaders of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, who are both former prime ministers, would be freed. The heirs of the country's two political dynasties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, known as the battling begums were arrested in an anti-corruption drive by the interim government.

The military seized power in January 2007, pledging to purge politics of corruption, following months of political unrest.

U.S. Embassy officials in Dhaka on Tuesday called the chief adviser's speech a move in the right direction, saying the United States welcomes steps that lead to democracy, a definite time frame for elections and dialogue between the interim government and political parties.