(Corrects party name in third paragraph)
* 154 of 300 seats in Sunday's election uncontested
* Leader of opposition party confined to residence
* EU, U.S., Commonwealth decline to send election observers
By Tony Munroe and Serajul Quadir
DHAKA, Jan 3 With a brass band, horse-drawn
carriages and political posters flapping overhead, the rally in
an old section of the Bangladesh capital had all the trappings
of a spirited election.
But the two candidates vying to represent the Lalbagh
constituency, among the minority of seats to be contested by
more than one candidate in nationwide polls set for Sunday, are
both in the ruling Awami League, which is poised to steamroll to
victory as the main opposition party sits out the vote.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is boycotting in
protest at Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's move to scrap the
tradition of letting a caretaker government oversee elections.
The impasse undermines the legitimacy of the poll and is
fuelling worries of economic gridlock and further violence in
the impoverised South Asian country of 160 million.
"The acrimony between two of our main leaders has brought
this country to where it is now and not just crippled our
economy and growth, but also our democratic system," said Badiul
Alam Majumdar, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance, a
Either Hasina or BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia has been prime
minister for all but two of the past 22 years and there is deep
enmity between them.
While the outcome of Sunday's poll seems certain, what
happens afterwards is not. That could imperil Bangladesh's $22
billion garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of
exports and has been hampered by a series of nationwide strikes,
including an ongoing transportation blockade called by the BNP.
Pre-election violence that killed more than 100 people,
mostly in rural areas, had eased in recent days, although two
people were burnt to death early on Friday when opposition
activists hurled petrol bombs at a truck in northern Dinajpur,
according to police. Five polling centres were set on fire in
southeastern Feni, Khaleda's hometown.
Meanwhile, verdicts in the International Crimes Tribunal
investigating atrocities committed during the 1971 war of
independence from Pakistan have elicited a violent reaction from
activists affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an Islamist
ally of the BNP.
Last month, the first execution resulting from the tribunal
was followed by deadly violence against Awami League members.
Hasina has spoken of holding talks following Sunday's polls
with the opposition on the conduct of future elections.
If successful, these could eventually result in another
election. The BNP demands that the current electoral process be
Many opposition leaders are in jail or in hiding. Khaleda is
under what appears to be house arrest.
"Even if the BNP wanted to sit down to a dialogue, the
atmosphere does not exist," Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, a BNP vice
chairman who was detained for several hours following a recent
visit to Khaleda's home, told Reuters on Friday.
The Awami League argues that the interim government system
has failed in the past.
"The election will be held under a strong and independent
Election Commission, not under any unelected people," Hasina
said in a televised speech on Thursday night.
A poll published in Friday's Dhaka Tribune found support to
be evenly split between the two parties, with the BNP backed by
37 percent of respondents and the Awami League 36 percent.
The European Union, a duty free market for nearly 60 percent
of Bangladesh's garment exports, has refused to send election
observers, as have the United States and the Commonwealth, a
grouping of 53 mainly former British colonies.
"We're disappointed that the major political parties have
not yet reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair, and
credible elections," Marie Harf, a U.S. State Department
spokeswoman told a briefing on Thursday in Washington.
While the military could step in to take power in the event
of a breakdown of law and order - which it did in 2007 - it is
widely seen as reluctant to do so.
"Sheikh Hasina's main challenge is to convince the world
these elections are credible and because that is not possible
she will need a well-planned exit strategy to eventually conduct
fair elections," said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of
global anti-corruption body Transparency International in
(Additional reporting by Rafiqur Rahman, Nandita Bose and Ruma
Paul; Editing by Ron Popeski)