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Bangladesh election violence stokes flames of opposition. Foes insist that President step down, but he seems set to tough it out

Widespread violence that marred local elections in Bangladesh this week has given the opposition more ammunition to use against President Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The nation's often-fractious opposition parties - there are more than 20 - have regularly charged that free and fair national elections are impossible under President Ershad. Wednesday's clashes took place between rival ruling ruling party and opposition supporters, and at least 100 people are believed to have died. The clashes have triggered concerns of more violence in the runup to parliamentary elections set for March 3.

The two main opposition parties - the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party - are united in plans to boycott national elections as long as Ershad is in office. They want Ershad, a former Army general who took power in a bloodless coup in 1982, to resign, and a caretaker government in place before any elections are held.

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President Ershad has charged the main opposition parties with being undemocratic because they are hindering elections.

The opposition alliances have called a two-day strike beginning tomorrow. A campaign of demonstrations and general strikes has been in motion since Nov. 10, and has cost Bangladesh nearly $1 billion in failed production and exports.

According to key opposition leaders, their strategy seems to be to trap Ershad in an impasse in one of two ways:

Under the Constitution, fresh parliamentary elections should be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the last parliament (which was disbanded in December). If continued strikes and opposition boycotts force a postponement or cancellation of the election, Ershad's continuation in office would be unconstitutional.

Even if the opposition fails to stop the elections, a widespread boycott could succeed in making them look like a farce, and weaken Ershad's claims to legitimacy.

In either case, the opposition leaders' calculation is that Ershad will have to go.

Ershad dismissed parliament in December in the apparent hope that fresh elections would appease the opposition. His Jatiya Party had held a parliamentary majority after winning the 1986 elections. But that vote was marked by violence and fraud.

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Since the opposition movement gained momentum last November, the government has declared a state of emergency and arrested an estimated 5,000 political activists. Under the country's Special Powers Act, the government has assumed the power to keep a person detained for an indefinite period without trial.

When asked about the possibility of the Army stepping in to take charge, a Cabinet minister said the military was not thinking of imposing martial law. The country had come out of military rule about 15 months ago. So far, the military has remained behind Ershad - who was Army chief of staff before being elected President. Now, under the Constitution, he is the supreme commander of the armed forces.

For now, President Ershad and his aides seem ready to tough it out - in the apparent hope that opposition divisions will be too wide to bridge and that the public will weary of the strikes and loss of earnings.

Opposition supporters, though somewhat disconsolate that their three-month agitation has not yet brought down Ershad, say privately that there is no turning back from the course they have chosen. An adviser to an opposition leader says public support - and pressure - will keep the main opposition leaders united.

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