Bangladesh voters bemused by clean poll

DHAKA Sat Dec 20, 2008 3:28am GMT

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DHAKA (Reuters) - An election in Bangladesh is usually a chance for an ordinary voter to make a quick buck, enjoy a free meal and perhaps even grab a souvenir t-shirt at a campaign rally.

For the man in the street, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the parties and candidates; they rarely live up to their campaign promises anyway.

This year things are different.

"No-one is offering us money or anything else this time," said Abdul Jalil, a rickshaw puller in the capital, Dhaka. "Previously, we would get cash or other gifts during elections."

Bangladesh goes to the polls on December 29 for a parliamentary election the interim government says will be the cleanest in years -- if not the country's history. The election, the ninth since independence in 1971, will end nearly two years of mostly emergency rule and return the country to democracy.

For the forthcoming poll, the election commission has introduced strict rules restricting spending by candidates, banning vote buying or influence peddling and outlawing cash giveaways -- standard fare in almost all previous ballots.

Such abuses scarcely raise an eyebrow in the impoverished country of more than 140 million people, the majority of them illiterate.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH

For many, a free lunch at a campaign rally would be their only meal of the day; a giveaway shirt or shawl their only new item of clothing for the year.

"I thought I'd earn some money by joining rallies or marches, but this year there is nothing," said Abdul Karim, a tea vendor in Rangpur, who explained how previously he had been paid to add his voice to rent-a-crowds or to distribute party pamphlets and posters.

Bangladesh is usually a riot of colour at election time, with campaign posters vying for attention on every wall -- and party workers are not above sabotaging their rivals.

But this is now banned, and candidates are restricted to hanging only black and white pictures in public places. Big rallies are restricted to the two main candidates for prime minister, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia

Yet some things never change -- many Bangladeshis remain as sceptical as ever that the election will bring change to their lives.

"We hoped for change in the past, it didn't happen," said Rafiqul Islam, 50, from Shibganj. "We don't expect it to come this time."

(Reporting by Anis Ahmed; Editing by David Fox)

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