Dhaka: Security forces lined the streets on Monday as Bangladesh voted in its first election in seven years, a much-anticipated poll that was to restore democracy to this troubled nation after two years of emergency rule.
Authorities have deployed 650,000 police officers and soldiers across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a history of military rule and political unrest.
Authorities feared the polls might degenerate into violence as the last attempt at elections in 2007 did, prompting the military to cancel the election and declare emergency rule.
But Monday’s vote opened without reports of violence, and Bangladesh’s interim leader, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said the transfer of power to an elected government would be complete soon.
“We’ve waited for this day for the last two years,” he said.
Residents of the capital, Dhaka, walked or rode in non-motorized rickshaws to polling stations because of government restrictions on vehicles during the vote.
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.”
Chief Election Commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huda expected high voter turnout.
More than 81 million people are eligible to cast votes in the election.
Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman told the AP that they hoped to start announcing results at 7pm.
“Everything will depend on how fast results come to the commission from polling stations across the country,” he said.
Clashes broke out on Saturday between supporters of Hasina and Zia, leaving 85 people injured in three different districts, the United News of Bangladesh reported.
Some 200,000 election observers including more than 2,000 foreign observers fanned out across the country to monitor the voting processes.
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.
Women in this largely conservative, male-dominated country see voting as a rare opportunity to wield power.