Bangladesh gripped by rioting as political rivalry threatens election

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At least 50 people were injured yesterday as violent protests brought much of Bangladesh to a standstill. In the capital, Dhaka, troops were deployed and police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas to disperse thousands of stone-throwing protesters, many of them armed with sticks.

Behind the violence on the streets lies a deepening political crisis that threatens to shatter Bangladesh's fragile democracy. The protesters are demanding that general elections, scheduled for 22 January, be postponed, and accuse the caretaker government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed, of being biased. One of the two main political parties, the Awami League, has said it will boycott the elections, making any vote that takes place largely irrelevant, since its supporters will not accept the outcome. But President Ahmed says he is powerless to delay the vote under the country's constitution.

The depth of the crisis was underlined yesterday, when police found bomb-making materials and a book on jihad in a raid. Bangladesh has been struggling to contain homegrown Islamic militants, who mounted a concerted bombing campaign in 2005.

There were unconfirmed reports that at least five small, homemade bombs went off in Dhaka yesterday. Several protesters were injured when police baton-charged them.

The Associated Press said one of its photographers had seen a dozen police officers beating a single protester. "I'll die, please don't beat me, I'll die," the man said.

The protesters were said to have remained defiant, with one group attacking police in an effort to free others who had been detained.

The demonstrators were enforcing a three-day transport blockade, and succeeded in stopping transport across the country. Rail officials said protesters forced trains to stop at major junctions. At Savar, some 15 miles from Dhaka, protesters attacked cars whose drivers were trying to ignore the blockade.

The Awami League says it will block access to the presidential palace tomorrow, raising fears of further violence.

Behind all this lies two powerful women playing out their rivalry on the streets of Bangladesh, and with the lives of their supporters. The election was set to be fought between Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, and Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Ms Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh's first "president-for-life", Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while Ms Zia is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who took power in a coup shortly after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination, but later restored democracy before being himself assassinated.

Both former prime ministers, the two women have come to dominate political life in Bangladesh, but they are bitter rivals.

Complicating the issue is Bangladesh's unique political system, which is supposed to prevent precisely this sort of crisis. Under the system, the elected government resigns 90 days before elections, and hands over to a non-partisan caretaker government. But when Ms Zia's government resigned this time, she and Ms Hasina couldn't even agree on a neutral caretaker, and President Ahmed had to step into the breach.

Now Ms Hasina has accused him of being biased in favour of Ms Zia, and will not take part in the election. "We will not accept farcical elections," said Abdul Jalil, a spokesman for her alliance. "We will shut down the country for weeks if the government goes ahead with holding the elections."

President Ahmed has protested that he has no power to delay the vote under the constitution. But senior advisers said yesterday that secret talks were under way to find a way out of the crisis.

"If both sides have a consensus, maybe we can try to find a way to have a new election schedule, within or outside the framework of the constitution," said one adviser, Shafiqul Haque Chowdhury.