Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Q&A: Bangladesh elections

Bangladeshi men read newspapers pasted on a wall in Dhaka
Interest in the election is gearing up

Bangladesh's army-backed interim government has lifted a two-year state of emergency ahead of the general election on 29 December. It will be the first such vote in the country for seven years and comes after nearly two years of emergency rule.

What is at stake?

When voters in the People's Republic of Bangladesh go to the polls they will be electing 300 new members to the country's 345-strong unicameral National Parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad.

But it will not be a routine exercise in parliamentary democracy. Bangladesh in recent years has been plagued by political instability - the fact that the vote has been delayed for two years is a reflection of that. Many pundits argue that this election is make or break time for the country's democracy.

Who are the main protagonists?

The two main parties competing for power are the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina - also a former prime minister.

Khaleda Zia (L) and Sheikh Hasina
Both women have dominated their parties for 20 years

Between them the two women - bitter personal enemies - have alternated from government to opposition for most of the last two decades.

Both the BNP and the Awami League have formed alliances with numerous smaller parties. Neither main party is likely to take defeat gracefully - if their past record is anything to go by, the loser will almost certainly blame a rigged election process.

What are the main issues?

On the face of it, there are a host of problems that the incoming government will need to address. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world where millions of people earn barely $1 a day.

It also has a reputation for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world - both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have been detained during the last two years on corruption charges along with dozens of other top political and business leaders.

Many fear that the character clash between the women - reflected among their respective sets of supporters - means that their mutual rivalry will overshadow the pressing problems the country faces.

Will the vote be orderly and peaceful?

The military-backed caretaker government has over the last two years worked hard to ensure that the vote will be free and fair.

Awami League supporters in Dhaka
Neither party is likely to accept defeat gracefully

It has provided millions of new identity cards to voters to eliminate fraud and has thousands of security forces on stand-by on polling day to ensure that the vote is peaceful.

But such is the level of mistrust and animosity between the two parties - both have track records in resorting to violence - that an orderly vote cannot be taken for granted.

What happened to ordinary politics in Bangladesh over the last two years?

The caretaker government introduced a state of emergency in January 2007. Political parties were banned from holding meetings. Trade union activities were also banned and the media was in effect censored.

The two main parties have only recently been allowed to resume political activities. From the outset the caretaker government said that the election would only be held once it had rid the country of corruption.

It arrested scores of politicians, businessmen and civil servants - including Khaleda Zia and Skeikh Hasina. However many of those who were detained are now standing in the elections.

How many senior politicians were arrested during the state of emergency?

Several hundred people were questioned or detained - and some are still awaiting trial. Khaleda Zia's elder son, Tarique Rahman, was one of those placed in custody - he has since left the country.

In June 2007, the special anti-corruption court handed down its first conviction and sentence to a former government minister, Amanullah Aman, who was sent to jail for 13 years.

Has the military-backed government succeeded in its efforts to eradicate corruption?

That remains to be seen. Many argue that the problem is too deep-rooted. They say that Bangladesh cannot be clean while Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia stay on the scene.

Bangladesh soldiers
The army has been a dominant player in recent political life

The caretaker government failed in its plans to force them into exile and at the moment both appear to have as tight a grip over their respective parties as ever.

Many analysts argue that as long as the two women - even if they are not themselves corrupt - continue to hold run their respective parties, a culture of corruption will remain.

Why was a state of emergency called in the first place?

Emergency rule was declared ostensibly to uphold law and order. When the BNP's term of office ended in October 2006, the country was gripped by a series of violent clashes in which many people were killed.

The Awami League protested that general elections that were due to have been held in January the following year would not have been free or fair. It said it would boycott the elections and disrupt them.

What were the Awami League and their allies unhappy about?

Bangladesh has an unusual electoral set-up in which, before elections, the government must resign and a neutral, caretaker government takes over and assumes responsibility for running a fair and impartial poll.

The Awami League argued that the interim government was biased in favour of the outgoing BNP led by Khaleda Zia, and that the list of people entitled to vote in the election was years out of date.

Why is politics so bad-tempered in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is one of the most politically polarised countries in the world, even though the actual policy differences between the Awami League and the BNP are not that significant.

Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have alternated as prime minister since 1991. They are bitter rivals and barely speak to each other.

As a result, political life has been marked by, at best, ceaseless bickering.

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