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For the last two years, Bangladesh has been standing at the crossroads. Governed by a military-backed caretaker administration led by Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, the period has seen the decimation of its civilian leadership through their widespread imprisonment — including of the two most important leaders — in an effort to purge the system of corruption. Attempts to restore a democratically elected government have, however, brought Awami League's Sheikh Hasina as well as Bangladesh National Party's Khaleda Zia back into the daylight, preparing for the December 29 polls that will decide which way the country will go for the next few years.
The battling begums, as the Hasina-Zia duo is known for their bitter political animosity and their alternating hold on power between 1991 and 2006, are not the only figures of the past to have reappeared in the gradually animating political scene. So has Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the military leader whose seizure of power in 1982 and the subsequent eight years of misrule had become synonymous with corruption, leading to widespread discontent and a mass movement to end his hold on power. Now donning more legitimate garb, as the head of the Jatiya Party, Ershad has entered into an electoral alliance with the Awami League and is widely speculated to bargain for the President's post if the election results are in their favour.
The run-up to the elections slated for January 2007 saw widespread street violence, forcing Hasina to decry the "partisan" attitude of President Iajuddin Ahmed's caretaker government and boycott elections. Elections were postponed indefinitely, emergency imposed and the drive against corruption launched to cleanse the system, restore credibility and ensure a level playing field before representative democracy could be allowed to run its course. A change of course from within is always the better alternative, but since such is rarely practicable, the Army announced it had to oversee the crackdown on "corrupt politicians" and their beneficiaries. Draconian, absolutist measures were the natural fallout: human rights groups like Odhikar estimated a monthly average of 26 extra-judicial killings at one point, a purge that saw lakhs jailed and gross human rights abuses committed.