B'desh party squabble heads to Election Commission

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DHAKA, Nov 1 (Reuters) A controversy over leadership of fallen Bangladesh prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia's party, which has analysts and party activists weighing the political impact, is headed for the country's Election Commission (EC).

Just who will be at the helm of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- the leaders chosen by Khaleda or those who overturned her choices -- looks set to be determined in the short run by the EC.

As part of preparations for parliamentary elections which the country's army-backed interim authority plans before the end of next year, the EC is issuing invitations to different political parties to talk and seeking their views on the best ways to achieve a free and fair vote.

The invitation for the BNP has been held back, as the EC says it wants to confirm first which faction -- one led by Khaleda's nominee Khandakar Delwar Hossain and the other by former finance minister Saifur Rahman -- deserves it.

Chief Election Commissioner A T M Shamsul Huda said the commission would review the BNP's constitution and other factors to pick the right people.

However, regardless of the EC decision differences will remain between those in the party who believe it is time for Khaleda to significantly loosen her authoritarian control and others who see her firm leadership as critical to its success.

Many BNP activists and supporters said they were disappointed over the battle for control, and that it would do the party's electoral chances no good.

''They are trying to push personal ego at the cost of the party itself,'' said Shah Jalal Ahmed, a businessman and staunch BNP supporter.

''This bewilders most people at the party's grassroots, who really want Khaleda to remain at the helm and to hold the party together,'' said Jalal.

''The changes in the BNP looked inevitable for quite some time, and many in the party have welcomed it as a step towards democratisation of the BNP,'' said Professor Ataur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association.

''But it is too early to predict what impact it will exactly have on the party's future and in the coming election,'' he told Reuters on Thursday.

Khaleda's rivals in the BNP say they still hold her in high esteem and honour her as their chief. But Saifur also said ''the party cannot wait for an individual indefinitely, as it needs to unite and prepare for the elections.'' Khaleda has been in jail since early September, facing charges of corruption and abuse of power. If convicted, she will likely be barred from contesting polls.

''I will fight to save Khaleda Zia's leadership even at the cost of my life,'' Delwar told reporters in a Dhaka hospital, where he is being treated for few days.

''HEINOUS CONSPRACY'' Delwar called Saifur's move, which he has said was decided at an illegal meeting, a ''heinous conspiracy to destroy BNP and tarnish Khaleda's image''.

Khaleda's rival Sheikh Hasina, another former prime minister and chief of the other major party Awami League, has been in prison since July, facing similar accusations.

Both women reject the charges as false and politically motivated, while other leaders in their parties squabble for power in their absence.

Saifur, backed by other self-styled reformists in the BNP, knocked Delwar and his team from the party's leadership in a sudden, midnight decision on Monday.

The dissidents say they made the changes happen to ensure unity of the party and prepare it better for the elections.

The BNP has ruled Bangladesh for 10 years over the past 15 years, while Hasina's Awami League served a five-year term.

Both have been criticised over growth in corruption which saw impoverished Bangladesh rated the world's most corrupt country for five consecutive years.

In addition to Hasina and Khaleda, dozens of their former ministers have been detained -- and many already jailed -- in an anti-corruption drive launched by the interim authority. It vowed to clean up politics ahead of elections.

Incumbent generals of the Bangladesh army and the anti-corruption commission (ACC), also headed by a retired army chief, have said their mission was to help establish a flawless, credible, effective and sustainable democracy in Bangladesh.

Officials and analysts say the armed forces had no role in the shake up in the BNP or changes contemplated in other parties.

''The Bangladesh army is a patriotic force trying to help the government and the people in a democratic way,'' said political and defence analyst Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a retired major-general.


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