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Bangladesh Election Tests Future of its Democracy

June 12, 1996

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Bangladeshis walked, rowed boats and bicycled to the polls today, hoping to end a political standoff that has paralyzed their government and threatened the nation’s young democracy.

Long lines formed outside polling centers around Dhaka, the capital, with many voters saying they hoped the ballot would be fair and return stability to their impoverished nation.

``This election could finally uphold our democracy and show our military that it doesn’t need to take power again,″ said Gabriel Manik Gomes, a professor at Notre Dame College in Dhaka.

At least 18 people died in clashes between the nation’s rival political groups during the monthlong campaign, including two Tuesday. Fearing further violence, the government deployed 40,000 soldiers to help 400,000 police and security forces maintain order.

But only scattered violence was reported by the time polls closed this afternoon. A crude bomb was thrown at a car carrying a candidate near a polling station in central Dhaka. The candidate escaped unhurt, but the explosion injured at least nine people, police said.

Another candidate was injured in a clash with a rival party in the southern town of Pirojpur, and police there had to fire rifles to scare away young people trying to snatch ballot boxes, police said.

Polls predicted that neither of the country’s rival leading political parties _ the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the opposition Bangladesh Awami League _ would win a majority in Parliament. That could set off further violence between their heavily armed supporters.

The top four parties competing for 300 seats in Parliament were former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s centrist Bangladesh Nationalist Party; Sheikh Hasina’s liberal Bangladesh Awami League; the Jatiya Party of former President Hussain Mohammad Ershad, who is imprisoned for corruption; and the Muslim fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Although men and women compete for the 300 seats, 30 more seats in Parliament are reserved for women. These seats are filled in an election later in which only the new legislators vote.

In the rundown schools where the voting took place, men and women stood in separate lines today and were sent to different rooms in keeping with the Islamic traditions of this mostly Muslim nation of 120 million.

On the ballots, candidates and parties were identified by symbols to help the many illiterate voters.

``We hope this election will be peaceful and finally return discipline to our political parties,″ said Raihana Begum, a 25-year-old housewife. ``For two years we have had general strikes that kept my son away from school and my husband out of work.″

Since winning independence in 1971, Bangladesh has seen two presidents assassinated, three coups, and 18 failed takeover attempts. Military or quasi-military governments have ruled this poor and overpopulated country for 15 years.

But in 1990, a pro-democracy movement unseated leader Gen. Hussain Mohammad Ershad. A year later, the nation’s first genuinely free election created Mrs. Zia’s civilian government. Mrs. Zia is the widow of President Ziaur Rahman, whose assassination brought her into politics.

Mrs. Zia continued the free-market reforms of her predecessor, and the economy of this South Asian nation began to improve, with an industry producing textiles.

However, Mrs. Zia’s arch-rival, opposition leader Hasina, accused the governing party of rigging a by-election and demanded that Mrs. Zia resign. Hasina has accused Mrs. Zia’s late husband of being involved in the plot that killed her father, President Sheik Mujibur Rahman.

For two years, general strikes organized under Hasina’s leadership crippled the economy, froze the government and saw most opposition legislators quit Parliament.

Mrs. Zia held an early election in Feb. 15, but it was boycotted by the opposition and mired by alleged fraud. On March 30, Mrs. Zia stepped down, handing over power to a caretaker government that monitored today’s voting.

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