December 27, 2008 / 1:45 PM / 12 years ago

Bangladesh rhetoric heats up, motorcade attacked

(Adds attack details, Khaleda quote; writes through)

By Jerry Norton

DHAKA, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Candidates in elections which will return Bangladesh to democracy accused their rivals of corruption and vote-rigging on Saturday and an attack on a former leader’s motorcade fanned fears of more violence.

Rival supporters hit the motorcade carrying former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad, chief of the Jatiya Party and an ally of leading candidate Sheikh Hasina, police said.

"About 50 people armed with bricks and sticks attacked and badly damaged six vehicles. Around 20 people were injured," a police officer told Reuters.

Ershad escaped unharmed.

The motorcade was on the way to a rally at his Rangpur home district 330 km (210 miles) northwest of Dhaka.

Earlier police said they had found some 40 bombs around the country and detained more than a dozen Islamist militant suspects linked to possible violence plots.

Bangladeshis as well as foreign friends of the impoverished South Asian country of more than 140 million hope Monday’s parliamentary election brings a stable government.

That could attract much-needed investment and aid after two years of a military-backed government that suspended many rights.

Those hopes could be scuppered if widespread election-related violence flares up. Past Bangladesh polls have seen losing candidates and their supporters take to the streets.

Political violence in January 2007 was used by the interim government as a reason to take power and cancel an election scheduled for that month. Police have played down the threat to a smooth election this time.



CONSPIRACY CHARGE

One leading candidate, former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia, says the interim government is conspiring to help her rival Hasina, another ex-PM, win.

For her part Hasina, seen by some analysts as the likely winner, accuses Khaleda of corruption and vote tampering.

Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alternated in power for 15 years till 2006.

"During BNP rule we fought against terrorism and corruption, something (the Awami League) started and lived with," Khaleda told tens of thousands at a rally in Dhaka on Saturday.

Hasina told a similar rally in Dhaka the previous day: "The BNP, Khaleda Zia and her sons had pushed the country into serious political turmoil and ruined the economy."

The two will end their campaign with television speeches on Saturday night.

The election is a crucial test for the country, where some 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and frequent floods and cyclones add to economic woes.

Military rule, politically motivated violence and strikes have often disrupted democracy over Bangladesh’s 37 years of independence, while elections have been rife with fraud.

This time the interim government and Election Commission have introduced electoral reforms. International monitors say so far the election process looks credible.

However, the candidates’ charges against one another may have set the stage for the losers or their supporters to claim they were cheated, possibly leading to protests and violence.

Even without such incidents, the winner will face major challenges in reducing endemic corruption and trying to improve Bangladesh’s economy in the face of the global slowdown.

Based on previous polls, some voters are pessimistic.

"They promised us cheap food, year-round work and other benefits. But we hardly saw them after the elections. I suspect the same will happen this time," said housewife Safura Khatoon, 55, in Narsingdi 80 km (50 miles) east of Dhaka. (For related stories click on [nSP347930]) (Reporting by Anis Ahmed, Serajul Islam Quadir, Nizam Ahmed and Ruma Paul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)



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