Polling day in Bangladesh, but to vote could mean death

TIM McGIRK

Dhaka

They are holding an election in Bangladesh today; one in which no one may come to vote. All the main opposition parties are boycotting the polls, while the many people who might cast a vote for the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party are terrified of being killed by mobs out to sabotage the elections.

Election campaigns in Bangladesh are a rarity; the country has a history of messy and often bloody army coups. So when an election does come about, the atmosphere is like a carnival; the alleys of the old city of Dhaka are draped with party bunting nearly as colourful as the saris drying on the clothes lines; and rickshaw drivers pedal furiously through the bazaars with loudspeakers blasting political jingles. But, this time, the spark is missing.

Even the country's premier, Begum Khaleda Zia, has decided not to campaign. "I just don't feel good about it," she said. "How can I? There's no opposition."

Ms Zia, 50, is a widow and is the only prime minister ever to complete a four-year term in Bangladesh's short but turbulent history. Never mind that the opposition parties walked out of parliament 22 months ago and refused to come back, offended by a jeer from one of Ms Zia's ministers, who called them "New Muslims". Ms Zia's accomplishment is one for which most Bangladeshis are grateful, and a majority would probably vote again for her if they could. But they cannot.

At a protest rally outside the Dhaka Press Club (nearly all political marches end here; it spares the journalists the trouble of having to shuffle more than a few steps for a story) a speaker from the opposition Awami League threatened: "Anybody who goes to vote will come back dead!" Many of the 55 million voters are taking the threat seriously. As one bureaucrat admitted, "Do you think I'd risk taking my wife to the polling booth when they are throwing bombs? You're mad." Several polling stations were burnt down yesterday by protesters.

The opposition do not trust Ms Zia, an ex-housewife thrust into politics after the assasination of her husband, a major-general who became president. They want elections held under an impartial outsider. But, as Ms Zia said: "The opposition says they want a neutral caretaker before they'll join elections, but maybe they are trying to provoke another military coup." Bangladesh's Westminster-style constitution bans anyone who is not an MP from becoming prime minister. Western diplomats hope that after today's results, Ms Zia will use her two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution so that a caretaker can be selected to steer the country through new polls.

"If I don't have an election now, there will be a constitutional vacuum. We'll again try to sit with the opposition and come to an understanding. Then in the near future, we'll have all-party elections," said the Prime Minister. She has tried to befriend the opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, by bringing her a prayer rug and holy water from Abraham's Well after making a pilgrimage to Mecca, but to no avail.

In Dhaka, a city of more than 8 million people, most of them poor, the opposition's urban warfare of bombings, constant strikes and arson has made the daily struggle for survival even more precarious. Labour may be cheap here, but few foreign companies are willing to take a chance on opening a factory in Bangladesh

Bangladesh craves foreign investment. Yet whenever the opposition is tipped off that a visiting trade delegation is in Dhaka, a general strike is called. Everything is shut down, and company chairmen accustomed to limousines must squeeze into rickshaws painted all over with roses and glowering film stars. "Foreign investors see these strikes, and naturally they get discouraged," the Prime Minister said.

At Dhaka's busy river port, a boatman, Mohammed Sultan, earns less than pounds 1 a day for the dangerous work of weaving between the lumbering three- decked ferries in choppy water to deliver diesel fuel. The sunset has coppered the river red, and Mr Sultan is about to break his day-long Ramadan fast with a few sweets and many gulps of water. He says he may vote, probably for Ms Zia.

"By the grace of Allah, I'll try. But in my neighbourhood, there's every chance of violence." Even the 400,000 security forces and 9,000 soldiers on election duty cannot always protect the polling stations in the shantytowns of the poor.

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