VOLUME 28 NO. 2 | JANUARY 3 - JANUARY 9, 2009

Bangladeshis vote for first time in 7 years

Last updated 12-31-08 at 12:04 p.m.
Bangladesh Awami League party supporters cheer for their leader during an election campaign rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Dec. 15, 2008.
Photo by Pavel Rahman and provided by The Associated Press.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Security forces lined the streets Monday, Dec. 29, as Bangladesh voted in its first election in seven years, a much-anticipated poll that was to restore democracy to this troubled nation after two years of emergency rule.

Many voters in the capital were still waiting in line when polls closed at 4 p.m. (1000 GMT). Election officials said those already inside polling stations would still be allowed to cast their votes.
Authorities have deployed 650,000 police officers and soldiers across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a history of military rule and political unrest.

There were scattered allegations of fraud and voter intimidation, as well as clashes between supporters of rival candidates in southwestern Bangladesh that left 18 people injured, according to the United News of Bangladesh agency.

Authorities feared the polls might degenerate into wider violence as the last attempt at elections in 2007 did, prompting the military to cancel the vote and declare emergency rule.

Bangladesh’s interim leader, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said the transfer of power to an elected government would be complete soon.

“We’ve waited for this day for the last two years,” he said.

But both of the leading candidates — former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina — are facing corruption charges, and many fear the election won’t bring the reform the impoverished country of 150 million desperately needs. The two have traded power back and forth for 15 years in successive governments marked by corruption, mismanagement, and paralyzing protests.

Residents of the capital, Dhaka, walked or rode in rickshaws to polling stations because of government restrictions on motor vehicles during the voting.

S.A. Quader, a 57-year-old businessman, was among about 500 voters who arrived at a polling station in the capital’s northern Uttara district at least an hour before it opened.

“I’m here to choose the right person to lead our country,” Quader said. “I’m confident the election will be free and fair.”

Chief Election Commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huda expected high voter turnout.

“I am sure this is going to be a historic election,” he told reporters after he cast his vote in Dhaka. “The voters are waiting in long queues. That’s impressive.”

More than 81 million people are eligible to vote.

Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman told the AP that he hopes to start announcing results at 7 p.m. local time. The polls closed at 4 p.m., but voters still in line would be allowed to cast their ballots, he said.

“Everything will depend on how fast results come to the commission from polling stations across the country,” he said.
Both leading candidates said their supporters had alerted them to reports of voting irregularities, but election officials did not confirm any problems during Monday’s vote.

Clashes broke out over the weekend between supporters of Hasina and Zia, leaving 85 people injured in three different districts, the United News of Bangladesh reported.

Some 200,000 election observers including more than 2,000 foreign observers fanned out across the country to monitor the voting processes.

Zia and Hasina have traded power several times. Zia was elected prime minister in 1991, Hasina in 1996, and Zia again in 2001.

During these exchanges in power, a well-worn pattern emerged: One party wins the election, and the other spends the term leading strikes and protests to make the impoverished nation of 150 million ungovernable.

Last year, both Zia and Hasina were jailed on corruption charges, which they dismissed as being politically motivated. They were freed on bail and reassumed positions as the heads of their respective parties, the two largest in the country.
In a northwestern Chapai Nawabganj town, there were more women than men who stood in line to vote.

“I’ve come here half an hour before the polling began. There are already 200 women standing in lines,” said Tashkina Yeasmin, a local resident. “I don’t mind waiting.”

Women in this largely conservative, male-dominated country see voting as an opportunity to wield power.

“This is one of the rare occasions when we can make our own decision,” he said. (end)


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