DHAKA, Bangladesh – Bangladesh's first election in seven years was called largely free, fair and the most peaceful in decades Tuesday, but the bitter feelings between the two women who have dominated politics re-emerged as the loser rejected her archrival's win.
The vote returned former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power in a landslide. But her rival's accusation of vote fraud indicated Hasina will find it difficult to escape paralyzing power struggles in a country long plagued by corruption and misrule. Both women faced recent corruption charges.
"It is a farcical election," Khaleda Zia, also a former prime minister, said in a televised news conference early Wednesday, claiming the results did not reflect the people's opinion.
Monday's election heralded the Muslim country's return to democracy after two years of military-backed rule, which was put in place after failed elections in 2007 dissolved into street riots.
While Zia's party charged that Hasina's new two-thirds majority in Parliament was the result of widespread vote fraud, both Bangladeshi and international observers expressed satisfaction with the voting process.
"This has been a very free and fair election," said Election Commission Secretary Humayun Kabir, who had 20,000 observers monitoring the vote.
International observers, including European Union monitors, urged the opposition to accept the results.
"The process appears to have yielded a result that accurately reflects the will of Bangladeshi voters," said Constance Berry Newman, head of a 65-person delegation from the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes democracy.
The United States welcomed the successful vote.
"All Bangladeshis can take great pride in the success of these elections," said a State Department statement, noting the high voter turnout.
But Zia's party filed complaints with the Election Commission, charging ballot-rigging and forgery at 220 polling stations, including election officials registering fake votes.
Kabir said the commission would investigate.
Much of the credit for the smooth election went to an extensive operation by the military — backed by U.N. financing — to clean up the voter rolls. More than 81 million eligible voters were photographed and given national ID cards in a process that helped root out about 10 million fake or duplicate names.
But the attempt to fight corruption had mixed results, including the failure to prevent Hasina and Zia from competing in the election. Both were among more than 200 top politicians charged with corruption, but they were freed by the country's high court before the balloting.
The two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics for two decades, which is more a reflection on South Asia's penchant for political dynasties than the role of women in this Muslim nation.
Though bitter rivals, their 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.
Analysts said unless Hasina pushes ahead with the anti-corruption drive, Bangladesh will lose the gains of the election and likely revert to the corruption, mismanagement and political power struggles that have paralyzed previous attempts at democracy.
"Corruption cases against politicians, including Sheikh Hasina and her other party leaders, must be allowed to continue without government interference," said Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
Another key test would be the rural council elections set for January, he said. "Hasina's government must ensure there is no political interference into the polls."