After just 16 days of frenetic campaigning, both women – Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – made televised addresses to the nation.
Zia has been the country’s prime minister twice and Hasina once and both are vying for another term.
“I know you are aware of our mistakes,” Zia said in her speech. “I ask for your forgiveness. I can assure you that we will take lessons from the past. I am human, mistakes get made.”
Sheikh Hasina meanwhile said she would end hunger and poverty in the grindingly poor country of 144 million people, promising to learn not only from mistakes made by her rivals but from her own errors.
“I urge the younger voters to bring us to power so we can build a country free of hunger and poverty. We want to steer the country to peace and prosperity,” she said.
The women, nicknamed the “battling begums” for their intense personal rivalry, have dominated Bangladesh’s political scene for the past two decades.
Across the densely populated country, an unprecedented security operation is under way to curb election fraud and pre-empt attacks by religious hardliners.
Some 600,000 police officers have been patrolling 35,000 polling booths, and 50,000 troops are present on city and town streets.
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.