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Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Bangladesh poll campaign begins

Awami League supporters
The Awami League says it has formed a "grand alliance"

Campaigning has begun in Bangladesh's upcoming general elections, with the interim government lifting all restrictions on political rallies.

The main contestants are the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia and the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina, both former prime ministers.

The interim government will fully lift a state of emergency next Wednesday, ahead of the elections on 29 December.

Bangladesh has been under emergency rule since January 2007.

Both main parties had demanded its removal ahead of the polls, arguing that the vote - the first in seven years - would not be credible if restrictions were in place.

Manifesto

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina launched her campaign on Thursday by praying at the shrines of Muslim saints in the north-eastern city of Sylhet.

Reports say she was greeted by thousands of followers on her way to Sylhet, some 250km (150 miles) from the capital, Dhaka. She travelled in a bullet-proof vehicle.

Khaleda Zia
Khaleda Zia has vowed to bring "good governance"

Sheikh Hasina launched her party's election manifesto on Friday.

Her rival, BNP chief Khaleda Zia was also in Sylhet and spoke at a rally of thousands of supporters.

She said ahead of the rally: "We are going to fight and win the election. We will establish good governance."

She leads a four-party alliance, comprising the Jamaat-e-Islami and two smaller parties, that won two-thirds of the seats in parliament in the last general election in 2001, defeating Sheikh Hasina's government.

The Jatiya Party, led by former president Hossain Mohammed Ershad, announced the formation of a "grand alliance" with the Awami League and other smaller parties.

"The alliance will defeat the rivals with a huge margin," said Syed Asharful Islam, a spokesman for the Awami League.

Meanwhile, an international research group has said that Bangladesh's political future remains "complex and fragile" ahead of the key elections.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that the country's powerful military may not be ready to bow out of politics.

"Regardless of who wins the election, the next government and the opposition parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army that wants a greater say in politics."

Two years ago, elections in Bangladesh were cancelled amid accusations of fraud and after weeks of street violence. The army stepped in to restore order, backed an interim government and had dozens of leading politicians jailed for corruption.

Many in the country feared that the army would not hand power back again.

But the political parties have returned, and by the end of this month either Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia will be elected prime minister once again.

The two women have themselves spent much of the past year behind bars amid corruption allegations, and are now only out on bail.

The BBC's Mark Dummett in Dhaka says they claim that the accusations against them are politically motivated and are leading their parties as if nothing has changed.

The interim government has promised that these will be the fairest elections possible.

It has taken the names of more than 1.2 million fake voters off the electoral roll, and the army will soon be deployed to make sure there is none of the violence and intimidation that have scarred previous elections.

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