FOR the first time in Bangladesh's brief but tumultuous history, a democratically elected government will hold elections later this week.
But there will be little cause for celebration in the streets of the capital, Dhaka, or in thousands of villages and towns scattered around this impoverished country of 120 million people.
Widespread election-related violence, which has left more than a dozen dead and thousands of people injured, appears set to escalate. Opposition parties are forming action squads to hinder voting and calling for a two-day strike to coincide with the election.
The government has announced it will employ the Army on polling day ''to keep the peace,'' but many Bangladeshis say the situation is already out of control.
In a country that has been under military rule for 16 out of the past 24 years, the presence of the military will loom large over the election.
The main opposition parties have refused to participate in the Feb. 15 parliamentary elections, claiming there can be no free and fair contest unless Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her caretaker government step down. The opposition wants a neutral administration installed to supervise the vote.
The drama being played out in Bangladesh centers on the acrimonious relationship between two women - Prime Minister Zia, the widow of assassinated Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Gen. Ziaur Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of the Bangladesh independence leader and the country's first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated by disgruntled Army officers in 1975.
Despite the boycott, Zia and her ruling BNP are determined to go ahead with elections to the 330-member Jatiya Sansad or parliament.
Opposition activists accuse Zia of employing Army generals as her advisers and have warned that she may have to hand over power to the military if she cannot contain the escalating violence.
If elections are not held, Bangladesh would be plunged into a constitutional crisis. An election must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament, which took place Nov. 24.
''The country is slipping into chaos, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel,'' says the head of the Bangladesh Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Salman Rahhan.
Diplomats in Dhaka say that unless both sides can settle their differences at the negotiating table, the future of democracy in Bangladesh may be in danger.
Although a number of minor parties have agreed to participate in the elections, the absence of the three main opposition parties - the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Jatiya Party of deposed President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, and the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami - will deprive the ruling party of legitimacy after the polls. Zia and 43 BNP members already have been elected unopposed.
Bangladesh has a history of military leaders taking advantage of popular grievances against corruption, lawlessness, and the failure of civilian governments to make things work. But most analysts say the Army will be reluctant to take power in the current volatile situation.
''They are psychologically too weak to think of yet another intervention,'' says Talugdar Maniruzzaman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, referring to the damage to their reputation inflicted by the military rule of President Ershad, who was overthrown after mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1990.
ZIA was elected prime minister in the 1991 elections that followed the resignation of President Ershad. After the initial euphoria that accompanied Bangladesh's return to democracy, her party was accused by the opposition of vote-rigging in by-elections, corruption, and incompetence.
In March 1994, the opposition began a marathon boycott of parliament that culminated with the resignation of 147 members nine months later. During 1995, the opposition resorted to street protests and strikes to try to force dissolution of the ''illegitimate parliament,'' sending the economy into a tailspin.
The two-year political stalemate that precipitated the current crisis looks set to continue.
According to Indian political commentator Kuldip Nayar, the stage is now set for a period of one-party rule. ''It is clear that Mrs. Khaleda Zia was never sincere about having an arrangement that could have satisfied [the opposition],'' Mr. Nayar says.
''Her's was a public relations exercise to bamboozle the public so that she could hold elections in the way she wanted to,'' he says.