December 30, 2008 in Nation/World

Former prime minister wins Bangladesh vote

First election in 7 years ends in landslide
By JULHAS ALAM Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Bangladeshi women cast votes in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Monday. Bangladeshis formed long lines to choose a new prime minister and restore democracy in the country’s first election in seven years.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

DHAKA, Bangladesh – Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political alliance won a landslide victory in elections aimed at restoring democracy to the troubled South Asian nation, an election official said today.

But even before the tally was complete, Hasina’s opponents launched allegations of irregularities and forgery late Monday night – leading some to wonder if the election would be able to end a cycle of unrest that has made the country virtually ungovernable. The party led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia said it would make a formal comment on the result later today.

Election official Humayun Kabir said Hasina’s alliance won a two-thirds majority in Parliament after votes in most districts had been tallied.

“This has been a very free and fair election,” Kabir told reporters at his office in the capital, Dhaka.

The voting marks the country’s first election in seven years, but with no fresh faces – and with both leading candidates facing corruption charges – many fear the vote will just mean a return to the corruption, mismanagement and paralyzing protests of previous attempts at democracy.

Hasina and Zia are heirs to Bangladeshi political dynasties and fixtures of the political scene. Zia was elected prime minister in 1991, Hasina in 1996, and Zia again in 2001.

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.

According to the latest tallies, Kabir said Hasina’s alliance won 261 out of the 300 parliamentary seats. Zia’s alliance won 30, while independent candidates and the smaller Liberal Democratic Party took four.

Results from some districts will not be available until late today as polling was suspended in some stations because of allegations of irregularities.

Tens of millions of voters cast their votes Monday as the country held the first election in seven years 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 into street riots and prompted a military-backed interim government to declare emergency rule.

Voter turnout was high, with about 80 percent of the 81 million eligible voters casting ballots, according to 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 Dhaka. “I’m confident the election will be free and fair.”

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.

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