DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh holds a landmark election on Dec. 29 to move back to democracy after two years of mostly emergency rule by an army-backed interim government. Analysts hope the vote ushers in a stable civilian government that will help the impoverished Indian Ocean nation of more than 140 million people attract much needed investment and aid.
But that may not be an easy task for Bangladesh. Its political history has been marked by turbulence, long periods of rule by generals in and out of uniform, and violence.
Here are possible scenarios for the post-election future.
Bangladesh had a brief spell of credible democracy after independence in 1971, but went off-track after the death of founder president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a 1975 military coup.
After years of rule by army generals in and out of uniform, Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the widow of slain president Ziaur Rahman, alternated as prime minister over a 15-year period ending in late 2006.
Those times were marked by chaos, boycotts of parliament by losing parties, lack of compromise, bad faith and mudslinging, and deadly violence inflicted by and on political partisans.
In her campaign Khaleda and her Bangladesh National Party have accused the government and Election Commission of conspiring to ensure Hasina and her Awami League win.
That means if Khaleda loses, her conspiracy theory could provide justification for protests, possibly leading to violence.
As the favourite, Hasina, for now, is simply trying to drum up more votes. But an unexpected loss could provide her supporters with grounds to claim they were cheated.
Widespread unrest would be a distraction for the winners from instituting needed reform and a turn-off for would-be investors.
What role the powerful army will assume when an elected government takes charge is a common concern.
Analysts and diplomats say the army is likely to at least hover behind the scenes for a time to see if the new government can get a grip on endemic corruption and avoid violence.
If so, it may leave things to the civilian politicians. One incentive it has for doing so is that a lack of involvement at home means maximum flexibility for the military to serve in various overseas U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Those missions, in which Bangladesh forces have often been a prime player, generate compensatory payments to the country as well as pay the participating soldiers and officers salaries far above what they could earn at home.
If the new government fails badly, few doubt the military will be tempted to return with an overt role, which could mean the loss of much needed foreign aid from democratic countries.
Corruption is so deeply rooted in the country’s politics and bureaucracy that no one believes it will evaporate in just a few years.
But there is still hope that politicians including Hasina and Khaleda will find reasons to reform themselves and their parties after the bitter experiences they had in past two years, and begin the tough task of cutting back on corruption.
The women were both held in prison for a year on charges of alleged graft and abuse of power. They have also been accused of trying to build family dynasties and halting the rise of a new generation of leadership.
Failure to make progress on reducing corruption could mean the army returns and the women again face legal battles. And with both of them in their 60s, age alone may be an incentive to open up their parties and the leadership.