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Bangladesh Prepares for Monday Vote - 2001-09-30

Bangladesh goes to the polls Monday to choose a new parliament. There is unprecedented security across the country following widespread political violence during the campaign.

Tens of thousands of security officers have fanned out across Bangladesh as authorities fear that tensions between the two main rival political parties could spill over into election day.

The tensions are at fever pitch because the election for the 300-seat parliament is expected to be closely fought. The Bangladesh Nationalist party led by Khaleda Zia and the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina are the leading contenders.

The intense rivalry between these parties left the campaign trail marked with frequent shootings, bomb attacks and gun fights. At least six people died in the last stages of campaigning, pushing the death toll in the bloody election campaign to 130.

The caretaker administration supervising the elections is pulling out all the stops to ensure a peaceful poll. It has ordered mobile phone networks to remain shut Monday to prevent political workers from organizing riots.

Authorities have also conducted a nationwide search for illegal arms, and have asked people to check in licensed firearms.

Inspector General of Police Nurul Huda told a television network he hopes this will ensure a peaceful poll. "We have seized quite a good deal of short firearms, which are likely to be used on such occasions," explained Mr. Huda. "So that makes us quite confident that we have nabbed quite a number of criminals and we have seized quite a substantial number of firearms."

The political violence has not dimmed the spirits of Bangladesh's 75 million eligible voters. During the weekend, trains, buses, and ferries were packed with enthusiastic people heading back to their villages to take part in the polling.

More than 1,900 candidates are contesting the elections. Among them are 100 top businessmen, including former chiefs of trade and commerce bodies.

Political analysts say this is the first time that key business leaders have joined the political contest - probably because they want to gain influence in political parties which often sponsor crippling strikes that hurt the economy. The businessmen want to change that trend.

The election is being supervised by about 200 foreign monitors, besides thousands of local observers.

Monday's election is the third under a caretaker administration since democracy was restored in 1991, following the ouster of the last military ruler. The last government, headed by Awami League leader Shiekh Hasina, resigned in July to let a nonparty government organize the elections.