When tanks appeared on the streets of the Bangladeshi capital three weeks ago, it was a chilling reminder of the fragile nature of democracy in this impoverished South Asian nation. For most of its 25-year history, the country has been under military rule.
The abortive coup by soldiers protesting the dismissal of Army Chief Lt. Gen. Abu Saleh Mohammad Nasim by the president took place just as political parties were launching their campaigns for the June 12 general election. After a tense standoff, rebel troops returned to their barracks, and Bangladesh stepped back from the brink once more. But the shadow of the military still hangs over this crucial vote.
This is the second time in the past four months that Bangladeshis are being asked to vote to help pull the country out of its protracted political crisis. The last elections, in February, were boycotted by the opposition after former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia refused to hand over power to a neutral interim authority.
Her Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) won almost all of the 300 elective seats in parliament, but she was ultimately forced to concede to the opposition's demands and step down after an intense campaign of strikes and demonstrations.
Although all Bangladesh's 81 political parties are contesting the election, the vote may do little to end the stalemate that has hobbled parliament for nearly two years and damaged the country's fragile economy.
Opinion polls are predicting a hung parliament with the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, emerging as the largest party, narrowly ahead of its arch rival, the BNP. With both sides accusing each other of vote-rigging even before the first ballot is cast, there is a danger that whoever loses will not accept the result, increasing the chances of military intervention to restore order.
"Conspiracies against a free and fair election must not be allowed to succeed," Ms. Wajed, commonly known as Sheikh Hasina, said on the eve of the polls. "[The BNP] may seek to overturn the people's electoral verdict by creating a law-and-order crisis in the country."
Wajed also accused President Abdur Rahman Biswas, a former BNP leader, of engineering last month's attempted coup to discredit her party. Lt. Gen. Nasim was dismissed by President Biswas for his alleged links to the Awami League.
The BNP, however, rejects the charges, pointing out instead that it was Wajed's father and the country's first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who declared the state of emergency in 1974 that paved the way for a decade and a half of almost unbroken military rule.
"The BNP is the only party that can restore democracy that was taken away by the Awami League," Anwar Zahid, a BNP spokesman says. "There is no reason to question our commitment to the democratic system."
In the days leading up to the election, the Awami League has tried to play down its perceived pro-Indian stance by promising not to renew the highly unpopular Indo-Bangladesh friendship pact signed when Rahman was in power. The two countries are involved in a protracted river-water dispute, and many Bangladeshis feel intimidated by their giant neighbor.
"We still have friendly relations with India, but in the changed regional scenario, especially after the formation of the [South Asian trade group] SAARC, there will be no need to renew the pact," says Sams Kibiria, political adviser to Wajed.
Although the BNP also pledged to scrap the treaty, it has concentrated on promoting its economic achievements, which saw growth running at nearly 5 percent and clothing exports booming.
"The polls will decide ... whether Bangladesh will go ahead with economic development or not, whether the country will return to the position of a bottomless basket or surge ahead to maintain self reliance," Zia said in a nationally televised address June 10.
There are many who say that Bangladesh's feuding first ladies are not qualified to solve the country's chronic problems. "Leaders of the major political parties have been chosen on the basis of their family connections, not on the basis of their intrinsic abilities, and they have not shown much evidence that they have any ... understanding of the problems," says Anisur Rahman, an economics professor at Dhaka University.
Meanwhile, political observers are closely watching the performance of the Jatiya Party of jailed military strongman Hussain Mohammed Ershad, who was overthrown in 1990. The JP, which won 35 seats in the 1991 election, is expected to improve its tally. By holding the balance of power, General Ershad's control over the future of the two front-runners, Wajed and Zia, could be critical, despite his incarceration for corruption. Ershad's party has made the general's release a condition for extending its support in any coalition government.
"These [two leaders] have messed things up so badly, if Ershad is released he could easily become a rival of them," says Moazzem Hossain, editor of the Financial Express in Dhaka. "People are fed up with mismanagement and Ershad is remembered as an able administrator."