Bangladesh parties seek to rebuild unity, faith in leaders

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DHAKA, Oct 23 (Reuters) Bangladesh's main political parties have stopped pushing for reforms to curtail the powers of their fallen leaders and instead are rallying around them ahead of elections planned for late next year.

The reforms were driven by groups of senior politicians and aimed to sideline Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, former prime ministers and chiefs of the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) respectively.

The two women are now in jail awaiting possible trial for alleged corruption and abuse of power. If convicted, they would be barred from contesting parliamentary polls expected to be held at the end of 2008.

The dissidents accused Hasina and Khaleda of exercising ''dictatorial control'' and of trying to build family dynasties to perpetuate power.

But lately they have changed tack and they now say their prime task is to win the freedom of their leaders and secure party unity.

''For their own political survival they need to keep their rank and file united (even) at the cost of not reforming the parties nor declaring abhorrence for corruption,'' said Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a defence and political analyst.

''Faced with danger of a new political paradigm likely to surface in 2008, the two rival parties (may) ... even unite to prevent the growth of a third major political force,'' said Ibrahim, a retired army major-general.

More than 170 key political figures have been detained in an anti-corruption drive launched by the country's army-backed interim authority trying to clean up politics.

Among them are the ex-premiers and dozens of their former ministers -- as well as two of Khaleda's sons.

In what looks like an unwritten agreement, the Awami League and BNP seem to be working together to challenge the interim government, which imposed a state of emergency in January that virtually froze political activity.

They appear also to have realised that the two women are still extremely popular among party activists and supporters and that it would be difficult to win an election without them.

''We are working to hold the party united and launch a movement to free Begum Kahleda Zia,'' said retired brigadier general Hannan Shah, a senior BNP leader and staunch loyalist.

Hasina's Awami League has also seen a pullback by reformist dissidents, who are now preaching unity of the party.

''The prime task ahead of us now is to get our party chief freed and then move to the election under her active leadership,'' said former minister Tofayel Ahmed.

But some analysts see the new developments as doomed.

Tareque Shamsur Rahman, a leading political analyst and a professor of political science at the Jahangir Nagar University, near Dhaka, said: ''Without reforms in the political parties, democracy cannot flourish in Bangladesh.

''The leadership has to accept the reality.'' REUTERS ARB KP1410

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