Bangladesh's begums wrap up campaign for crucial polls

December 28, 2008 - 0:0

DHAKA (AFP) – Bangladesh's two main political leaders criss-crossed the country Saturday in a final day of campaigning ahead of the country's first democratic election in seven years.

Monday's polls will signal the end of two years of rule by an army-backed regime which stepped in after months of political violence brought the country to a standstill.
The two women who have dominated the political scene for the past two decades -- Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- made a last-ditch attempt for votes during live televised addresses Saturday evening.
The two former premiers -- who were jailed on corruption charges by the caretaker regime but then released in order to contest the elections -- for the first time during campaigning showed remorse for their past actions.
Zia pleaded for forgiveness for past wrongdoings.
""I know you are aware of our mistakes,"" she said. ""I ask for your forgiveness. I can assure you that we will take lessons from the past. I am human, mistakes get made.""
Sheikh Hasina said she would end hunger and poverty in the grindingly poor country of 144 million, promising to learn not only from mistakes made by her rivals but from her own past errors.
""I urge the younger voters to bring us to power so we can build a country free of hunger and poverty. We want to steer the country to peace and prosperity,"" she said.
Earlier in the day, Zia appealed to first-time voters as she addressed a 100,000-strong crowd in the capital Dhaka at her final rally before campaigning officially ends Saturday night.
Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, held her last rally in the second biggest city Chittagong -- a BNP stronghold -- reiterating her pledge to modernise the country through technology.
Some 600,000 police officers were deployed across the country Saturday to patrol 35,000 polling booths, in addition to 50,000 military personnel deployed earlier this week in a bid to eliminate election fraud and threatened militant attacks.
At least two dozen suspected Islamic militants have been arrested, some with grenades and explosives, ahead of the elections but large scale violence that has marred previous campaigns has not yet materialised.
The current regime has been in power since January 2007 when the army stepped in, cancelled elections and imposed a state of emergency after at least 35 people were killed in pre-poll violence over allegations of vote-rigging.
In one incident Saturday, police said two people sustained minor injuries after a clash between BNP and Awami League supporters in the northwest Pabna district. Private television station NTV said 15 were hurt in the clash, with six hospitalised, after a gunbattle.
Separately, the motorcade of former military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad -- campaigning on behalf of his Jatiya Party -- was attacked by protesters in northern Bangladesh, police said.
Private television channels said at least a dozen people were hurt as protesters hurled stones at the cars but local police chief Faruque Hossain told AFP: ""No one was injured and Ershad's car was not damaged.""
Ousted in 1990 when Sheikh Hasina and Zia-- nicknamed the ""battling begums"" -- joined forces to lead a people's revolt, Ershad says he has struck a deal with Sheikh Hasina to become the next president if she wins.
Poll analysts have predicted a hung parliament with fringe parties and independent winners playing big roles in the formation of the next government.
The winner of Monday's election, either a single party or a coalition of parties, needs 151 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly.
Bangladesh has a long history of coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The Awami League and the BNP have often been accused of anti-democratic tactics, with both regularly boycotting parliament and staging national strikes when in opposition.
A short but vigorous election campaign has been under way since December 12.