Bangladeshis Head to Polls for First Time in 7 Years

Bangladeshis formed long lines at polling stations even before voting began Monday to choose a new prime minister and restore democracy after two years of emergency rule in the country's first election in seven years.

Authorities deployed 650,000 security forces across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud in the election, seen as crucial to restoring democracy in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a history of military rule and political unrest.

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.

S.A. Quader, a 57-year-old businessman, was among about 500 voters who arrived 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."

There were concerns that the polls might degenerate into violence as the last attempt at elections in 2007 did. That vote was preceded by weeks of deadly rioting between the Zia and Hasina's rival parties that prompted the military to cancel the election and declare emergency rule.

Clashes broke out Saturday between supporters of the candidates, leaving 85 people injured in three different districts, the United News of Bangladesh reported, quoting police and witnesses.

There was no reported violence Monday.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, the head of the interim government that took power when election were canceled last year, promised that this time the vote would go ahead as scheduled.

"All along I have spoken about holding a free, fair and credible election, and that election is going to be held tomorrow," Ahmed said Sunday. He lifted the state of emergency earlier this month.

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

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

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 two largest in the country.

In northwestern Chapainawabganj town, there were more women then 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 a rare opportunity to wield power.

"This is one of the rare occasion when we can make our own decision," said Yeasmin.