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Central & South Asia
Vote count under way in Bangladesh
High voter turnout marks closely contested parliamentary elections.
Last Modified: 29 Dec 2008 19:04 GMT

Thousands had queued up to vote even
before the polls opened [AFP]

Bangladeshis have turned out in their droves to vote in parliamentary elections marking the end of two years of emergency rule, with a pair of rival former prime ministers vying to reclaim power.

More than 81 million people were eligible to vote in Monday's election, with some observers estimating turnout at around 70 per cent.

The election - the first to be held in Bangladesh for seven years - should return the country to democratic rule after two years under a military-backed government.

Election officials and monitors said the polls were mostly peaceful but said no official estimate would be available.

Vote counting is currently under way but results are not expected until Tuesday.

Commentators expect little will separate supporters of the two leading candidates, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

"I've come here half an hour before the polling began. There are already 200 women standing in lines," Tashkina Yeasmin, one voter waiting in line in northwestern Chapainawabganj town, said.

Corruption allegations

The two rivals spent the final day of campaigning criss-crossing the country, promising to lower food prices, tackle armed oppoisiton groups and curb corruption.

Hasina and Zia both said in speeches broadcast on Saturday that it was time to end confrontational politics in which strikes and violent street protests have been common.

Bangladesh vote: Key facts



Sheikh Hasina Wajed, head of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, are the two main candidates running in the elections.

Both were jailed on corruption charges, but deals have seen them released from custody so they can take part in the vote.

Over 1,500 candidates are running for election, including about 50 women, competing for 300 seats in parliament.

Some 2,000 foreign observers and around 200,000 local monitors are tracking the election process for fairness

About 50,000 soldiers and more than 600,000 police and paramilitary forces will be on duty on election day.

But at mass rallies they have accused each other of corruption, vote-rigging and incompetence, which may set the stage for post-election violence among partisans.

The women, nicknamed the "battling begums" for their intense personal rivalry, have dominated Bangladesh's political scene for the past two decades.

Last year, both Zia and Hasina were jailed on corruption charges, which they dismissed as politically motivated.

They were freed on bail and reassumed positions as the heads of their respective parties.

The impoverished South Asian nation of more than 140 million has a history of questionable elections, sporadic periods of military rule, and politically motivated violence.

But the outgoing army-backed government - which took over in January 2007 and cancelled an election due that month - says that when it comes to voting procedure and safety, this time things will be different.

Fifty-thousand troops have been deployed, as well as 75,000 police and 6,000 members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), along with other auxiliary forces for security.

In addition, about 200,000 local and 2,000 foreign monitors were present at polling centres to check procedures.

'Great day'

Waliur Rahman, a former government official, told Al Jazeera that the elections were a "great day for Bangladesh".

Critics says Khaled Zia's policies are very similar to her rival Sheikh Hasina [Reuters]
"This is akin to a second form of independence day for us. It is a turning point for our nation," he said.

The newly elected government has the daunting task of improving the lives of millions in a country where around 45 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

While Hasina and Zia alternated in power for 15 years up until 2006, critics say they barely contributed to resolving many of Bangladesh's problems, mainly due to their parties taking to the streets in protests and strikes when out of office.

Analysts also say the women's policy differences are small and to attract much needed investment and aid what matters for Bangladesh is less who wins than that the election brings stability and peace.

"Once the result is known, it is vital that both the victor and the loser - whoever they may be - work together in the interest of the country," said Cassam Uteem, head of the Commonwealth Observer Group.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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