When elections aimed at legitimising Ershad’s governance were held in 1986, Zia gambled by boycotting them.

Boycott gamble

The move paid off, and far from being condemned to political obscurity as critics had predicted, Zia garnered enough public support to triumph over her arch rival Sheikh Hasina Wajed in the country’s first free election in 1991.

The ballot victory marked the start of a long and bitter feud between the two women, who alternated power for 15 years up until January 2007.

Despite having ruled Bangladesh between 1991 and 1996 and from 2001 to 2006, Zia’s terms in office have been marred by corruption allegations.

Along with her political nemesis Hasina, Zia was charged with corruption by the interim government established by the military in 2007.

Sons exiled

As part of a deal to allow Zia to resume political life, her two sons – also accused of corruption during her 2001-06 term – have been banished abroad.

Observers believed Zia’s third bid for power was unlikely to succeed, something that has been confirmed by preliminary results that suggest her party won just 10 per cent of parliamentary seats.

The BNP has already alleged that some of its supporters were unable to vote and have confirmed they intend to lodge a complaint over electoral irregularities.

Analysts believe that who wins the election is less important than all sides accepting the result, fearing challenges to the vote outcome would destabilise the country further.

Others have already expressed concern that the absence of a strong opposition party in parliament will hamper progress towards a fully-fledged and robust democracy.