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MADRAS, India — Bangladesh is the latest South Asian flash point where democracy stands threatened. Bloody street battles between two rival political parties — led by two women who hate each other — and other violence have swept the small country northwest of India in recent weeks. The military is now on the streets of major cities and towns.

Once known as East Pakistan whose Bengali-speaking Muslim majority had an affinity with India’s West Bengal state on the border, Bangladesh was born in December 1971 following political developments that had driven a wedge between West and East Pakistan. The two were already divided by language (West Pakistanis spoke Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi), culture and a huge distance.

East Pakistani feelings that the concentration of political power in West Pakistan gave it greater privileges led to the rise of Bengali nationalism, which West Pakistan tried to crush. The military murdered intellectuals and resorted to plunder, looting and rape, trying break the East’s morale. Even napalm bombs were used against innocent villagers. It was attempted genocide.

India intervened, defeating West Pakistani forces in the East, and the region declared independence. But a military coup in 1975 saw the murder of the nation’s father and first prime minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, and 15 members of his family. The military took over.

Although democracy was restored in 1991, recent political violence and gore have added a frightening dimension to the fragile peace of this nation of 150 million. There are fears that Bangladesh will once again slip into a military dictatorship. Many people are deeply disappointed with political corruption. The failure of mainstream politics has encouraged the extremist fringe in a land peopled by al-Qaida and Taliban sympathizers. Events in recent weeks suggest that the state is on the brink of Islamic radicalism.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamic allies ended their chaotic, five-year term Oct. 27. Their rule had been marked by a nonfunctioning Parliament, street battles and creeping poverty and diseases.

A partisan and ailing president, Iajuddin Ahmed, has become the head of an interim government with defense, foreign affairs and the military under his control. General elections are scheduled for January, but the present scenario indicates that it is unlikely that the 90 million eligible Bangladeshi voters will get a fair chance to elect a government. The judiciary is highly politicized, and the Election Commission is filled with political appointees.

The Awami League, the country’s main Opposition party led by Sheik Hasina had planned demonstrations when Ahmed took over, but when she got wind of a move by outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia — who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — to declare a state of emergency, she called off the protests. Hasina realized that such demonstrations would only fuel the fire. (Prime Minister Rahman, killed in the 1975 coup, was Hasina’s father.)

Since Hasina’s Awami League has a fair chance of an electoral win, it has a lot to lose by political rashness. At least one important factor is on her side: Since democracy was restored in 1991, incumbents have not fared well in elections. In addition, the BNP has split: A new organization, the Liberal Democratic Party, led by former President Badruddozza Chowdhury, is campaigning on an anticorruption platform. He has managed to rope in some important BNP leaders. But if the Election Commission is not purged of pro-BNP elements, Zia may still manage to rig the polls. Hasina has been demanding the appointment of neutral commissioners.

There is understandable international concern that Bangladesh’s corrupt, power-hungry politicians have weakened the nation’s institutions to the extent that a free and fair electoral process is difficult. So the ground looks ideal for the emergence of violent Islamic extremism. Two possibilities are feared: military intervention leading to a dictatorship, or a takeover by Islamic radicals.

Although the Bangladesh military is not as politicized as its Pakistani counterpart, there are military leaders waiting in the wings, according to media in Bangladesh. Islamic radicalism appears to be the greater threat. Militancy has grown in recent years, targeting leftists, secularists and intellectuals plus religious minorities, such as Christians and Hindus. Bombings and suicide missions are on the rise.

The principal beneficiary of the political unrest has been the increasingly influential Islamist fringe, led by legitimate parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and extending to the violently militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahedin Bangladesh, reports the International Crisis Group, adding that “Islamic militancy has flourished in a time of dysfunctional politics and popular discontent.”

Perhaps what Bangladesh urgently needs today is a national government that will look beyond narrow, partisan politics. But where is the leader to head such a government? Neither Hasina nor Zia seems to have such a vision.

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