DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh's two former female prime ministers have launched their campaigns ahead of December 29 elections, playing up their Muslim beliefs and promising to uphold the country's Islamic traditions. Analysts say fierce rivals Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed are using religion to improve their images after being accused of corruption by the current regime. After the army-backed government took over in January 2007, both women were jailed for a year and have since been released as part of a deal to ensure their parties take part in the elections. Both started their campaigns on different days at a 600-year-old Muslim shrine in the northeastern city of Sylhet, with footage of them praying shown live on television. Political science professor Golam Hossain told AFP the two political leaders hoped that looking as devout as possible would bring in the votes. "Islam is being used as an effective political campaign tool for the first time here where politicians are increasingly invoking Islamic symbols," said Hossain, who works at Jahangirnagar University outside the capital Dhaka. Leader of the left-of-centre Awami League party, Sheikh Hasina, who is a favourite to win the vote, has promised in her manifesto that she will not pass laws that go against Islam or traditions of Holy Prophet (PBUH). "Even the Awami League, which has rarely used religion to campaign in the past, is competing with Khaleda Zia to show who can be a better Muslim," Hossain said. The Awami League included secularism in the country's constitution. But military juntas, including that led by Khaleda's husband Ziaur Rahman who ruled the country in 1975, later introduced Islam as the state religion. Since launching her campaign this week, Khaleda has touted her four-party alliance as the champion of Islamic values. Key allies of both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have also pledged to repeal any laws deemed anti-Islamic while Jama'at-e-Islami, the country's largest religious party, reportedly wants to introduce a law banning blasphemy. Dhaka University political scientist Ataur Rahman said Islam was the key to victory at the ballot box as Muslims make up 90pc of the country's 144 million population. "Although Bangladeshi Muslims are considered moderate, Islam (is) very important to the country's identity," he said. "The two leaders know that people here won't vote for anyone who would hurt the Islamic sentiment or is publicly against Islam." Dhaka-based political commentator Badruddin Omar, who writes columns for several Bengali language newspapers, said the parties were using religion to sidestep the real issues facing the country, one of the poorest in the world. "They are trying to portray an image that they are clean and saintly," he said. "They are blatantly using religion to shield their corrupt past and avoid the real issues like spiralling prices, basic healthcare and food security."