Central & South Asia
Bangladesh heads to the polls
Long queues reported at polling stations following closely-fought campaign.
Last Modified: 29 Dec 2008 10:05 GMT

Hundreds of Bangladeshis began queuing to vote before the polls opened [AFP]

Polls have opened in Bangladesh, in parliamentary election aimed at returning the country to democratic rule after two years under a military-backed government.

Long queues were reported at polling stations from early on Monday morning, with more than 81 million people eligible to vote.

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).

Polls across the country opened at 8am (0200 GMT) and close at 4pm (1000 GMT).

Counting of votes will begin immediately after although results are not expected until well into Tuesday at the earliest.

"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.

"I don't mind waiting."

Corruption allegations

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

Hasina and Khaleda 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 at least when it comes to voting procedure and safety, this time things will be different.

"Perhaps we have taken the toughest ever security precautions to ensure that balloting takes place peacefully, free from rigging, intimidation and threats," Noor Mohammad, the inspector-general of police, told the Reuters news agency on Sunday.
"If anybody tries to do something, we will take drastic action."

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 will be 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 a massive task of improving the lives of millions in a country where some 45 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

While Hasina and Khaleda alternated in power for 15 years through to 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 abd the loser - whoever they may be - work together in the interes tof the country," said Cassam Uteem, head of the Commonwealth Observer Group.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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