Bangladeshis Vote for First Time in 7 Years After Emergency Rule by Military

Tens of millions of Bangladeshis cast ballots Monday in the first national election in seven years, a vote aimed at restoring democracy to the troubled South Asian nation after two years of emergency rule.

Security was tight and voting was the most peaceful in decades — a stark contrast to the failed elections of 2007, which dissolved in street riots and prompted a military-backed interim government to take over.

Voters turn out was high, with about 70 percent of the 81 million eligible voters casting ballots, said election official Humayun Kabir.

"I'm here to choose the right person to lead our country," said S.A. Quader, a 57-year-old businessman who voted in the capital, Dhaka. "I'm confident the election will be free and fair."

But with no fresh faces in the contest, many fear the vote will just mean a return to the corruption, mismanagement and paralyzing protests of previous attempts at democracy.

Both of the leading candidates — former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina — are facing corruption charges and the two, both heirs to Bangladeshi political dynasties, have traded power back and forth for 15 years in successive governments.

"Apparently parliamentary democracy is on the march again," said Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a political analyst and head of Center for Development Research of Bangladesh. "But doubt remains whether it solves the old problems."

Both leading parties campaigned on similar platforms of reducing corruption and controlling inflation. One of the few policy differences is that Hasina's party is seen as relatively secular and liberal, while Zia has allies among Islamic fundamentalists.

Bangladesh has no tradition of reliable polls, so it was unclear if a candidate has emerged as a clear front-runner. But partial, unofficial results reported Monday night gave Hasina's party an edge in many parliamentary districts.

The two women 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.

More than 650,000 police officers and soldiers had been deployed across the country in a bid to prevent voter fraud and the violence that marred the last attempt at a national vote.

To prevent cheating this time around, the interim government compiled a new electoral roll including voters' photographs. Some 200,000 election observers, including more than 2,000 foreign ones, monitored voting nationwide.

In some areas, lines at the polls snaked for about a mile. Thousands were still standing in line when the polls closed 4 p.m. and were unable to vote.

There were scattered allegations of fraud and voter intimidation Monday, as well as clashes between supporters of rival candidates that left 28 people injured, according to the United News of Bangladesh agency and the ATN Bangla television station. Local officials could not be reached for confirmation.

Results were not expected before Tuesday, said election official Shakwat Hossain.

Voters were given the option of expressing their discontent and could mark a "No" box on the ballot paper, to signify unhappiness with the choice of candidates. A majority no vote in any district would see results in that district nullified.

"I did not like any of the candidates," said Shahana Ahmed, a college student in Dhaka who said she voted No. "I doubt if these politicians can make democracy meaningful to us."

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.

Despite the flaws, analysts said a return to democracy provided the only chance to deal with Bangladesh's myriad problems of corruption, poverty, unemployment, inflation and terrorism.

"Democracy and free and fair elections are the only effective instruments for solving the problems facing the nation," said Shelley.