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Page last updated at 01:21 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

Bangladesh battle of familiar foes

Portraits in Dhaka
A street artist paints the contenders Khaleda Zia (left) and Sheikh Hasina

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

For Bangladesh's eunuchs, river gypsies and prisoners, Monday's general elections will be a unique experience. It is the first time any will be allowed to vote.

But for the vast majority of the country's 81 million voters, the elections will mark a return to Bangladeshi politics as normal, after two years of emergency rule when an army-backed caretaker government tried to rewrite how things are done here.

In many ways it failed, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is certain that one of the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, or Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, will be voted into office once again, despite the government doing all it could to drive them out of politics.

It came to power promising to clean things up, after months of street protests and battles between gangs of rival party supporters spiralled out of control.

The Awami League accused the BNP of planning to steal the elections that were supposed to be held in January 2007.

But with the support of many Bangladeshis, and foreign governments, the army intervened, declared a state of emergency and cancelled the elections.

New register

Encouraged by leading members of Dhaka's civil society, and senior army officers, who had grown enraged at the corruption of the politicians, the caretaker government then embarked on an ambitious programme to sort Bangladesh out.

[The interim government] did not meet its expectation, and in that way you can say that a good chance was missed
Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury,
Anti-Corruption Commission head

"Under these two illiterate women, democracy had collapsed," one senior caretaker official told me at the time.

"Mafia-like thugs, teachers, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Everyone was invited to join their parties to get rich. And there is no way we are going to allow them back," he said.

The Election Commission set about drawing up a new voter register to ensure that the coming elections would be fair, and took more than 11 million fake names off the roll.

The newly empowered Anti-Corruption Commission sought to prosecute the top politicians and businessmen who had earned Bangladesh its reputation as one of the world's most corrupt countries. Dozens were arrested, along with their wives and children who had helped stash their money.

The government signalled it was not afraid of going after even the biggest names when it arrested Khaleda Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, who many Bangladeshis believe embodies everything that is wrong with the winner-takes-all political culture.

Security personnel in Dhaka
Two years of emergency rule did not much change the political landscape

It then tried to drive the two party leaders into exile, but when that failed, had them arrested on corruption charges.

From then on things started to go badly for the caretakers and their friends in the army, who carefully kept to the background. They tried and failed to create a "third political force", and then tried and failed to engineer serious splits in the two main parties.

Draconian emergency laws kept trouble off the streets, but lost the government friends in the media who felt bullied by the army into censoring their reports, and the only 24-hour news channel was shut down.

The politicians complained that the anti-corruption drive was itself political, and many Bangladeshis felt that the treatment of the two leaders was vindictive.

Lawyers for Tarique Rahman said he was so badly beaten by army officers when he was in jail that he might not walk again.

"This is a revolution in slow motion," the official told me. "This is not a popularity contest."

But by the end of its first year, with anger at food prices also mounting, the government felt obliged to change its strategy and concentrate on holding acceptable elections within the year.

It soon found that unless Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina were out of jail, neither party would agree to participate. So after months of negotiations, they were allowed out, and so were their cronies.

'Political history'

The government, which had promoted reforms protecting the independence of the judiciary, now pressured the courts into suspending cases, and the anti-corruption drive ran out of steam.

Awami League supporter in Dhaka
An Awami League supporter sings patriotic songs in Dhaka

"It did not meet its expectation, and in that way you can say that a good chance was missed," the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury said.

"But then it happens when you are dealing with a problem of this nature, in a scenario like Bangladesh politics. You cannot be sure that if you start a thing well it will finish well," he said.

A popular feeling in Dhaka is that the caretakers correctly spotted what is wrong with Bangladesh's politics but were the wrong people to try to reform it.

"To fix democracy you need more democracy, not less," a friend told me.

They also underestimated the enduring popularity and strength of the two party leaders.

"When you look at these two ladies, they are not just people, they also reflect the political history of Bangladesh," Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a political analyst, said.

"They represent important social and political forces."

Those forces will be back in play from 29 December when a record number of voters are expected to turn out and vote for a return to Bangladesh's flawed democracy

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