By JULHAS ALAM, Associated Press
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A U.S. diplomat visiting Bangladesh on Thursday urged the nation's bickering political parties to resolve how to hold the next national elections due in 2014.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina last year annulled a 15-year-old policy of having a nonpartisan caretaker run the country during an election period, and rivals say her political party did so to rig the election.
Hasina says it was done because the Supreme Court called the policy contradictory to the constitution, and the polls could be fair if there is a strong election commission.
The political party of Hasina's archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and its allies have threatened to boycott the elections without the caretaker policy in place.
Lawmakers from Zia's party have been abstaining from Parliament, saying they would attend only if the government promises to restore the system. The opposition also has enforced several nationwide strikes to pressure the government in recent months.
The government says there is no way to restore the caretaker system and the opposition must come first to the parliament and place alternatives about holding the elections.
Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told a news conference in the capital, Dhaka, that the United States wants to see a solution.
"The two major political parties should reach an agreement to fix a mechanism for holding free, fair and credible election," he said.
Bangladesh is a fragile parliamentary democracy with a history of political violence.
The nation of 150 million people has witnessed two presidents slain in military coups and 19 other failed coup attempts. The military said last month it had thwarted another attempt.
Separately on Thursday, Blake said the United States wants a Bangladeshi bank for the poor to have strong leadership.
Hasina's administration ousted Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus as managing director of Grameen Bank last year in a dispute over the retirement age, and the bank hasn't decided on a fulltime new leader.
Grameen was a pioneer in issuing small loans to the poor as a way to overcome poverty, earning it and Yunus the 2006 peace award. The bank has about 9 million borrowers, mostly women.
Blake said his country wants to make sure there will be a new leadership capable of running the bank, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported. He spoke after visiting a scheme financed by Grameen outside the capital, Dhaka.
Yunus argued he was exempt from regulations that set the retirement age at 60, but he lost the court appeals.
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