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Bangladesh -- Chugging ahead

Accomplishments usually come in small sizes in the impoverished, overpopulated south Asian nation of Bangladesh -- a few more irrigation canals here, a few more grams of grain per head to eat there.

But so far Bangladesh is logging a fairly big one in political development for a country born in blood and weaned on coups and still less than 10 years old.

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A month after an abortive coup attempt claimed the life of Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman, the constitutional government that quickly slid into place to succeed him holds sway. The national legislature meets, the Army is in its barracks, and a fresh presidential election to replace the assassinated leader is set for Sept. 21.

Whether the last month represents an enduring achievement or simply a lull before a storm of political chaos and another possible coup remains to be seen, however.

The gaping void left by Zia's death remains unfilled, and there is open speculation that the Bangladesh Army will step in to take control before the election can be held.

One Western military expert in the Indian capital, who declined to be identified, said he believed the Army would seize power before the election. "They will find it necessary, in their way of thinking, to preclude a political shambles from taking place," he declared.

The Indian news magazine India Today reported what it called a growing feeling in post-Zia Bangladesh that the Army plans to enter the scene "the moment parties and groups not likely by it make a bid for power through the ballot box."

Analysts note that although Zia led the country in a successful transition from military to civilian rule, his own power base was the Army. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) he assembled was chiefly a vehicle for broadening his control and popularity beyond the military into the civilian ranks.

He came to power as an officer in a series of coups after the murder of the country's first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

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The BNP has nominated Bangladesh's Acting President, 75-year-old Abdus Sattar , as its candidate for the September election despite his earlier protestations that he would not run because of his age and poor health. The party holds a majority in parliament but is seen as floundering in Zia's absence.

The main opposition party, the Awami League, chaired by Mujibur's daughter, Hasina Wazed, has cast doubt on whether it will take part in the election at all. It has not yet put up a candidate, and Mrs. Wazed, who returned to Bangladesh in April after six years of self-exile in India, has been telling political rallies that the current system of government should be changed.

According to press reports here, she said the Awami League would launch a mass movement for a switch from the presidential system, in which voters choose the head of government directly, to a British-style parliamentary system in which elected legislators choose the government chief. A presidential election under the current system would probably favor the BNP; the current constitutional age requirement of 35 for presidential candidates would rule out Mrs. Wazed.

An Awami League election boycott would not displease the Army, which regards it as too "pro-Indian" and too threatening to its own dominant position. The military also reportedly fears a return of Awami League rule, as under Sheikh Mujibur, would mean a rerun of the country's 1972-75 slide into economic and political chaos.

But an Awami League no-show, which would leave the election field to the BNP and minor parties, could challenge the credibility of the election results.

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