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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 05:09 GMT 06:09 UK
Bangladesh approaches zero hour
By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Dhaka

Opposition protests in Dhaka
The opposition parties want the government to resign
Bangladesh appears to be heading towards a political crisis.

The government's last day in office is 27 October, but the ruling alliance and the opposition are at loggerheads over how to organise the polls that should follow.

On what should be a normal working day, the heart of the capital is all but deserted in the middle of a recent weekday morning.

Normally it would be throbbing with commerce, but the shops are shuttered, the streets are barricaded and there is very little traffic.

Violent confrontations

Disconsolate police officers in riot gear try to take shelter from the drumming rain.

Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina during a rally in Dhaka
The... ruling BNP-Jamaat alliance, they want to deny people's rights and manipulate the election, and rig the election
Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina

The opposition Awami League and its 13 allies have called another general strike.

Such stoppages are not unusual in Bangladesh.

Last year on average there was around one every other week.

But with elections around the corner the pace of politics is picking up.

"The government should accept the reform programme we have placed before them for the sake of a free and fair election," says opposition leader Sheikh Hasina.

"We want our people to have the right to choose their own government, but the present ruling BNP-Jamaat alliance, they want to deny people's rights to manipulate and rig the election."

There have already been months of violent confrontations as the opposition tries to force the government to accept its demands.

And now the dispute threatens to plunge Bangladesh into real uncertainty.

The government is due to leave office at the end of October - but the main parties can't agree on how to organise polls that should follow.

Crucial talks over the issue began on Thursday and will resume on Friday.

Opposition workers during the strike in Dhaka
Street protests have recently become commonplace

The opposition claims the chief election commissioner and his deputies are government stooges.

And they want a say in who will be the chief advisor of the caretaker government.

Bangladesh has a unique system.

When the elected administration comes to the end of its term, it hands over to an unelected interim government which then has 90 days to organise the polls.

Poll boycott

The constitution says the chief advisor, who effectively runs the government at that time, should be the last chief justice to retire.

So the man lined up for the job is Justice KM Hasan.

But the opposition says he is a Bangladesh Nationalist Party man.

In Bangladesh, politics is bitter and personal, with little middle ground.

The Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, and the Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina, haven't spoken to each other for years.

Unless their parties can now come to an agreement, the Awami League is threatening to boycott the polls.

Bangladeshi opposition activist in Dhaka
Frequent clashes have taken place between the opposition and police

"Each government after another has shrunk the space for the opposition," says Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the Daily Star.

"Both parties are guilty of it because both the Awami League and BNP were in power.

"So the mindset is that having won the election I have a monopoly on running the country in the way I want and the opposition can be ignored.

"If they are very vocal, then they have to be oppressed.

"Now that is at the root of the confrontational politics that you see and that leads to hartals (general strikes) and blockades."

For many people in Bangladesh, life is hard.

It is an overcrowded, poor country, and the disruption caused by politics makes it worse.

Kharwan Bazaar is a large fruit and vegetable in the centre of Dhaka.

'Obvious equation'

Traders sit on the ground behind piles of potatoes and papayas, onions and chillies.

Delivery men sleep on the back of bicycle rickshaws, waiting for customers.

The blockades and sieges stop trucks bringing in supplies, and the general strikes discourage customers from coming.

"It's like this, it disrupts the transportation," said Mizanur Rahman Monju, a potato trader.

Police take away an opposition protester in Dhaka
Several people have been detained after opposition protests

"There's no way the wholesalers can bring in goods from other parts of the country. If there are no goods in the market then prices go up. It's a very obvious equation."

Many traders say they would like to see an end to general strikes and a peaceful commitment by politicians from all parties to work towards the development of the country.

"Otherwise people like us, who work for our living, we don't have much to say to the politicians," said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, who sells green chillies.

Many here are now hoping the Islamic period of Ramadan will be a chance for tempers to cool.

Traditionally there are few demonstrations during the holy month - which would be a good opportunity for concerned parties to sort out their differences.

But with the elections drawing near - neither side will want to be seen to back down.

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