Bangladesh votes under heavy security
AFP - 1 hour 35 minutes ago
DHAKA (AFP) - - Bangladesh went to the polls under tight security Monday in the first elections here since 2001, with a pair of former leaders and bitter rivals vying to reclaim power in the impoverished nation.
The vote will restore democracy to the south Asian country after two years of caretaker rule by an army-backed interim government, installed after a wave of political violence prevented the last scheduled elections.
Thousands queued at polling stations, with hundreds of thousands of police and soldiers deployed to avert clashes between rival supporters and feared attacks by Islamic extremists.
Despite attempts by the caretaker regime to shake up a political system long seen as deeply corrupt, the leading candidates are two former prime ministers who have ruled alternately since 1991.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wooed voters with promises of cheaper food, action against Islamic militancy and curbs on corruption.
The women, who were themselves jailed on corruption charges by the current regime before being released to contest the elections, have both warned of voter fraud but said they would not challenge the result.
After voting in the capital Dhaka, Sheikh Hasina questioned how some ballot papers had been distributed but said, "I want the election to take place peacefully. Whatever the result is, we all should accept it."
With a third of the 81 million electorate voting for the first time, analysts say the result is far from certain, leading to concern that a smooth transfer of power could prove difficult if no clear winner emerges.
Armed troops lined the streets of Dhaka, among 50,000 on alert nationwide, while 600,000 police officers were deployed across the country to crack down on disruptions or voter fraud at the 35,000 polling booths.
A UN-funded digital electoral roll, which eliminated 12.7 million fake names, appeared to have resolved many of the problems that have hit previous Bangladesh elections.
At a polling station in the capital, voters queued with their new photograph ID cards in hand.
"I'm a first-time voter and the atmosphere couldn't be any better," said 21-year-old mechanic Mamun Howlader. "There's a festive atmosphere. It's fun."
Fakhruddin Ahmed, the former banker who has run Bangladesh under an interim administration for the last two years, urged the overwhelmingly Islamic nation to use its vote wisely.
"You must remember that you cast a vote on one day, but live with the results for five years," he said.
Some 200,000 electoral observers, including 2,500 from abroad, are monitoring the polling.
Police have captured two dozen militants and seized explosives, grenades and bombs in recent days, but campaigning has been free of the widespread unrest seen in past elections.
In one of the few violent incidents, protesters on Saturday hurled stones at the motorcade of former military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who heads the small Jatiya Party.
Elsewhere about 25 people were arrested early Monday for handing out cash bribes, and minor scuffles erupted over the weekend between rival Awami League and BNP supporters.
Hours before the polls opened, national police chief Nur Mohammad warned that his men would "take drastic action if anyone dares to create any violence."
The army-backed government took power in January 2007 after months of political unrest, which killed at least 35 people.
The deaths prompted President Iajuddin Ahmed to cancel elections and impose the state of emergency, which was lifted only on December 17.
Bangladesh, a desperately poor nation of 144 million people, has a long history of coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The Awami League and the BNP have often been accused of anti-democratic tactics, with both crippling the country during their spells in opposition by boycotting parliament and staging national strikes.
The winner of Monday's election, either a single party or a coalition, needs a simple majority of the 300 seats in the National Assembly.
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