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Violence precedes Bangladesh vote

Hundreds were wounded this week as the country braced for hotly contested elections on Jan. 22.

The democracy that this small South Asian state has struggled to preserve for two decades appears to be facing one of its most severe tests this week.

The streets of the capital resemble a war zone, with police and protesters exchanging volleys of tear-gas shells and Molotov cocktails. Hundreds have been injured just weeks before parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 22. On the roads outside Dhaka, transport blockades have nearly shut down the country.

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Police action peaked on Tuesday, when officers charged with batons and fired over 50 rounds of tear-gas shells and rubber bullets at protesters, who responded with improvised explosives. Wednesday, 60,000 Army troops plan to fan across the country on routine pre-election duty, but armed with the authority to arrest anyone without a warrant.

At the heart of the violent street clashes is a struggle for power between the country's two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), over the upcoming elections.

Attempts to reconcile the two groups have so far failed, leading analysts to suggest that the violent political crisis may deepen in coming months. Although Bangladesh has seen four elections since democracy was restored here in 1991, experts say the Awami League and the BNP seem are undermining its fragile democracy by politicizing the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the civil society institutions that can ensure fair elections.

The Awami League is leading a grand alliance to boycott the polls, accusing their BNP archrivals of rigging the voter list with phantom names during their five-year tenure, which ended in Oct. 2006.

Last month, a study by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) reported that the voter rolls have approximately 12.2 million names that are either "errors or duplicates."

"A voters list containing [only] two-thirds of the population strains credibility," says Owen Lippert, the NDI's representative in Bangladesh.

The League and its allies also claim that the BNP and its coalition partners, the religious, right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, have planted party bureaucrats in the country's Election Commission and in the pre-election interim government that Bangladesh's constitution has empowered to run the nation.

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The League demands that the elections be deferred until there is a fresh voter list and the interim government's chief resigns – a request that the BNP has threatened to resist at all costs. The League has already announced that it is forming nationwide election-resistance committees to scupper the vote.

"The problem is that the Constitution states that elections must be held within 90 days of the caretaker government assuming power, but it also states that a finalized voter list must be published as a pre-condition to elections," says Shahdeen Malik, a Supreme Court attorney who heads the School of Law at Dhaka's BRAC University.

The Awami League and its allies insist that polls must be delayed to correct and update the voter list, while the BNP has threatened agitation if the caretaker government does not hold the elections within the stipulated 90 days.

Because the caretaker government assumed power from the BNP on Oct. 28, 2006, the 90-day limit will expire on Jan. 25.

"Even if the current crisis is resolved through mediation, we will continue to witness a slow degradation of democracy in the years to come, as none of these parties have any respect for democratic culture," says Dr. Ataur Rahman, a political analyst and professor of political science at Dhaka University.

"It is the invasion of politics by big business that is at the heart of our political crisis," says Mr. Malik. "Both parties now have scores of powerful businessmen in their ranks who look forward to lucrative deals during a tenure in power."

Analysts point to the two parties' efforts to win the loyalty of the popular former dictator H.M. Ershad, whose influence is still far-reaching. Mr. Ershad is accused of having stolen tens of millions of dollars in state funds through crony contracts and downright theft. After he was ousted in 1991, the government filed a slew of charges against him.

While the BNP was in power, it dropped a number of corruption charges against Ershad to win his political support. When Ershad switched his loyalty to the Awami League, however, the BNP-run judiciary resumed proceedings against Ershad, which disqualified him from participating in the upcoming polls.

Although the Awami League had accepted the initial voter list and submitted its nominations to the election commission in December, it changed its position a week later. The League accused the BNP of leaning on the judiciary to resume proceedings.