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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Vote reform talks in Bangladesh
A policeman faces stone-throwing protesters in Dhaka
Elections were cancelled in January after months of violence
The authorities in Bangladesh have begun talks with political parties on electoral law reforms.

Election Commission officials say they will meet 15 parties over the next three months to discuss issues such as voter lists and party funding.

Elections were cancelled earlier this year after protests over vote-rigging.

An army-backed emergency government has promised fresh polls before 2008 ends. On Monday parties were told they could reopen offices, but not meet publicly.

The move was the first relaxation of restrictions which have all but outlawed political activity since January.

Human Rights Watch said the easing of the ban on politics was not enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses.

New leaders

The interim government has promised that democracy will be restored by the end of next year.

Khaleda Zia (L) and Sheikh Hasina
Khaleda Zia (L) and Sheikh Hasina deny any wrongdoing

But it says elections cannot be held until corruption is tackled.

Hundreds of politicians, including two former prime ministers - Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League - have been arrested on corruption charges.

Electoral officials say both the BNP and the Awami League will be invited to take part in the vote reform talks. The BNP recently split into two factions, one for and one against Khaleda Zia.

The BBC's Mark Dummett in Dhaka says the government wants the parties to reorganise and choose new leaders - which it argues is essential if credible elections are to be held next year.

If the parties stay loyal to the two women they face staying in opposition.

Parties are also being asked to change the way they are run, to open up their accounts to independent auditors and to agree to a code of conduct.

To debate these issues, our correspondent says, the parties are being allowed to open their offices in Dhaka and discuss matters in private. The BNP office is still locked.

Unrest

Wednesday's first meeting between election officials and politicians was with the Islamic Unity Front party.

"The talks are part of the road map to democracy," election commissioner Sakhawat Hossain told the AFP news agency.

We may or may not take their [the parties'] opinion on the issues
Election commissioner Sakhawat Hossain

"All the reform proposals would be on the table. But we may or may not take their [the parties'] opinion on the issues. The final decision lies with the commission."

The caretaker government initially enjoyed widespread popular support, but discontent has been rising in recent months, most notably over the increasing cost of living.

Last month, student demonstrations in Dhaka turned violent and spread into national protests demanding an end to emergency rule.

The violence posed the most serious challenge to the government since it took power.


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