The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Democracy lessons for Dhaka big two

Dhaka, May 8 (Reuters): Political parties in Bangladesh face a new challenge after the army-backed interim government asked them to ensure they practice internal democracy before the country holds free and fair elections.

One aim of the proposed reforms is to end what many argue is dynastic leadership in the parties and in the way they rule when in power, political analysts said.

Critics say this would particularly target former Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia.

Hasina is the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda is the widow of former President Zia-ur Rahman.

Hasina and Khaleda became active in politics in the 1980s. In the 15 years through 2006 they alternated as Prime Minister while holding tight control of their parties, as they continue to do.

The interim authorities also want to strip the parties of their powerful and often militant student wings, which triggered immediate protests by Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The election commission has proposed as well that parties register with it by submitting lists of their elected leaders.

“They will have to complete elections to their central and grassroots committees in accordance with their constitutions before applying for registration, and sources of funds will have to be disclosed,” retired army brigadier-general Sakhawat Hossain, a senior election commission official, said yesterday.

“The democracy and financial transparency in the parties would be looked into seriously,” he told reporters.

Both the BNP and Awami League bank heavily on the support of students and professional groups in this politically volatile country of 140 million people.

No political party would be allowed to contest national elections if it failed to register or complete the stipulated reforms, Sakhawat said.

The interim authority imposed a state of emergency, banned political activities, and cancelled elections planned for January after widespread violence between Hasina’s and Khaleda’s followers.

The head of the interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, says he hopes to hold the election before the end of 2008, but only after completing reforms needed to make the vote fair and credible.

The restrictions on political activity were partially ignored yesterday when thousands of Awami activists welcomed Hasina back to Bangladesh after the government had briefly blocked her return from a trip abroad.

Asked about reforms in her party, Hasina told reporters at the airport: “I have just returned, let me rest a bit. I will talk to my party leaders and associates soon.”

Authorities have clamped tight security around Hasina’s residence.

“They are allowing only a few visitors to meet the leader separately, but not in groups,” said her personal assistant, Hasan Mahmud.

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