Unsettled Elections in Bangladesh

Leading party did not win a clear majority and must form a coalition with smaller parties

BANGLADESH, one of the world's poorest and most turbulent nations, awaits a tryst with its first democratic government. Yet clouding the country's political passage are the unsettled outcome of the Feb. 27 national election and skepticism that the military is out of politics for good.

Middle-of-the-road politician Khaleda Zia, widow of an assassinated president, was the surprise winner in the election. But her Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell 11 seats short of a majority in the 300-member Parliament. She needs outside support to govern.

Ms. Zia outran her main rival, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the left-wing Awami League, which won 84 Parliamentary seats. Political allies would bring her another 11 votes, political observers say. Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was killed in a 1975 military coup, has charged vote rigging in the poll.

The election, policed by the Army and marred by only sporadic violence, was the country's first democratic political transition in two decades. Turnout among the 62 million Bangladeshi voters was high, especially among women, officials said.

Despite charges of widespread rigging and voter intimidation, an independent 12-member observer group said voting appeared fair. Last month's vote followed the December downfall of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad after weeks of street protests by a united opposition.

Emerging independent in 1971 from a civil war with Pakistan, Bangladesh has had nine governments since 1971, all taking charge after coups or assassinations. A crowded, predominantly Muslim country, Bangladesh has been burdened with poverty and natural disasters.

Zia and Sheikh Hasina, frequently referred to as ``the two ladies,'' waged a dual campaign to unseat Mr. Ershad and temporarily set aside differences to spearhead the student-backed movement that toppled the leader.

An interim government, guided by acting President Shahabuddin Ahmed, a former chief justice, was formed to oversee the holding of free and fair elections. Ershad, who took power in a bloodless 1982 military coup, remains under detention. He faces trial on charges of corruption, embezzlement, and illegal possession of firearms.

Political observers say the big question mark is the military's commitment to the democratic process and whether generals will step in if political tumult ensues.

Pivotal is Lt. Gen. Nurddin Khan, who is believed to lead a group of reform-minded officers. The military chief was instrumental in bringing down Ershad.

Zia, whose husband Ziaur Rahman ruled for six years before being assassinated in a coup in 1981, has urged the caretaker president to summon the new parliament and get ready for an immediate transfer of power. Meanwhile, Zia has been scrambling to put together a coalition that will likely include the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, which won 18 seats.

Mr. Ahmed says the newly elected Parliament will convene April 5. To install a parliamentary form of government, two-thirds of the assembly must agree to amend the Constitution, which now vests executive power in the president, not the prime minister.

Failing to wield authority through a parliamentary setup, Zia may opt to run for president, political observers say.

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