Violence, promises as Bangladesh poll campaign ends

December 27th, 2008 - 8:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Dhaka, Dec 27 (IANS) Bangladesh’s shortest-ever poll campaign ended Saturday as voters prepared for the ninth general election Monday, hoping to end the 23-month rule by a military-backed caretaker regime.The campaign time was cut to just two weeks, beginning Dec 12, when Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s regime lifted curbs under a national emergency imposed as the poll was cancelled amid political turmoil in January last year.

The intervening period saw an anti-graft drive. But with the government committed to hold a poll by this year-end, scores of people charged, under trial or even some who are convicted, have joined the poll fray.

Those facing trial include the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who were detained for several months. Both women leaders have denied wrong-doing and say the charges are motivated.

Any common cause between them ended there and the campaign has seen them making direct accusations at each other.

Hasina leads the nine-party Grand Alliance of centrist and left-of-centre parties, while Zia’s four-party alliance includes the Islamists.

Both claim to lead parties that brought independence and democracy. They committed themselves to fighting terrorism and curbing corruption.

The difference in their emphasis was while Hasina promised better ties with South Asian neighbours in her “Charter of Change”, the poll manifesto, Zia’s slogan was “save nation, save Islam”.

Both also played on the public emotions.

A tearful Zia said her sons had been tortured while in jail.

Hasina Saturday said: “I have a demand as a daughter-in law of Rangpur. My prestige now depends on you.”

“My husband is ill. My children are staying abroad. I hope you will save my prestige,” Star Online reported.

The campaign witnessed relatively less violence than in 2001, when the country had witnessed attacks on the religious minorities, particularly the Hindus, which persisted even after the poll that brought the Zia-led alliance to power. Hundreds crossed over to India in panic.

However, a continuation of that era has been the efforts of the Islamist militants to impact the poll. Cadres of banned Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami (HuJI) have been active through this period, even as many of their leaders face trial for specific crimes.

The run-up to the poll saw media reports about a plot to kill Hasina, allegedly hatched by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Hasina, targeted thrice in the past, scoffed at it, but sought to gain political mileage out of it.

This was followed by the discovery this week of grenades and a gun-fight between suspected JMB militants and the police on the day Zia was campaigning. She used it to allege that “a party” was out to eliminate her, leaving none in doubt whom she meant.

The government denied ‘direct’ threat to either leader and beefed up security.

Hasina’s meeting Friday and Zia’s rally Saturday at the historic Paltan Maidan in the national capital saw snipers mounted on the buildings nearby, tight vigil at the entrance and the speakers protected by bullet-proof glass enclosures.

The campaign ended on a violent note for former president H.M. Ershad, who heads Jatiya Party, a member of the Hasina-led combine. He had to run from a rally in his political bastion in Rangpur district in northern Bangladesh after his motorcade was attacked by supporters of his own partyman who turned a rebel candidate.

The Election Commission has printed a record 80.1 million ballot papers and had to struggle to include a score of candidates who joined the fray just ten days before the poll, thanks to Supreme Court directives.

Over 1,500 candidates, 60 of them women, are vying for 300 seats.

The election is being closely monitored by the international community.

Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) dispatched a large team of poll observers that was joined by the European Union (EU) Friday.

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