Bangladesh voters want change, doubt candidates
A stable democratically elected government could help attract needed investment to Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi farmer Dhaniram Debsharma wants Monday's election to change a pattern of graft-ridden civilian governments alternating with autocratic military rulers, but has his doubts that will happen.
"Who do I vote for? The old faces are all around," said Dhaniram, a farmer in the rice-growing area of Dinajpur, 350 km (210 miles) north of the capital.
Indeed the top two candidates in the Dec. 29 parliamentary vote are two ex-prime ministers, the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Begum Khaleda Zia. Between them, the pair have won at the ballot box dating back to 1991.
"(Hasina and Khaleda) promised many things in the past, but they didn't fulfil most of them. New promises are there but it is hard to believe they mean it," he said.
The election will end two years' rule by a military-backed government that suspended many political rights.
A stable democratically elected government could help attract needed investment to Bangladesh, a South Asian country of more than 140 million people, some 45 percent of whom live in poverty.
However, the 15 years through 2006 in which Hasina and Khaleda alternated in power were marked by endemic corruption, politically motivated strikes, and street violence.
For most of Bangladesh's 81 million voters, a good leader would keep food prices down, protect their rights, and ensure there is no diversion or squandering of the disaster relief the flood- and cyclone-prone country frequently needs.
"We want people in parliament who talk less but work more for us. Hasina and Khaleda were almost similar in their past behaviour within and outside parliament," said Ainul Islam, a school teacher.
"We do hope they will change somewhat in their approach and attitude, whoever wins," he said.
Incentives for change
Some think that may happen.
For one thing, the temporary authority detained the ex-leaders on graft charges for a year each, and might step in again if the winner fails to take on corruption this time.
For another, both are now in their 60s and may be more concerned about a legacy for the country than politics as usual.
The allies of the women's parties are another consideration for voters. Hasina's alliance, for example, includes former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who is from the north and helped bring development projects to it.
"He is our child, good or bad we want him back in parliament," said rickshaw-puller Abdur Rahim. "We don't like Hasina but with Ershad with her, she is a clear favourite."
In contrast, when it comes to the Jamaat-e-Islami party, part of Khaleda's alliance, some rural voters say they remember torture and abuses like rape by party activists during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.
The party denies such charges, but not everyone is convinced.
"Khaleda has made the war criminals her election ally. Then why should we vote for her?" said Plabon Chatterjee Bappi, an 18-year-old who enrolled as a voter this year.
"Also, we don't want to see the corrupt people back in parliament," said Bappi's friend, Abul Kalam.
While corruption and bread-and-butter issues like food, security, education, healthcare and jobs are common concerns among voters, certain groups have special worries.
Ethnic minorities such as Santhals in the north and Chakmas in the southeastern Hill areas want equal rights and opportunities with other Bangladeshis.
And the country's prostitutes demand the right to burial, instead of having their bodies thrown into rivers after death.
"We have been asking for burial according to Muslim rites for many years and previous government leaders promised to allow (it), time and again," Bilkis (one name) at a brothel at Gualondo, a riverside district in the north, told a local reporter.
"But no one kept their promise. This time we are pretty serious. We will vote for those who we believe."
Reuters Last Mod: 26 Aralık 2008, 13:34