Awami League sweeps civic polls

Dhaka, August 5:

Bangladesh’s army-backed government said today it had taken a key step towards restoring democracy in the country by the end of this year by holding local elections that observers hailed as a success.

The Election Commission said voter turnout at yesterday’s polls was high, with no reports of the violence that has marred previous elections in the South Asian nation.

Election commissioner Sohul Hussain told AFP the vote was a “big step towards restoring democracy” in Bangladesh, which has been under a state of emergency since January 2007.

Although only 1.2 million of the country’s 80.5 million voters were eligible to participate in yesterday’s vote, the ballot was largely seen as a test of the government’s new high-tech voter list and reforms.

The list, completed last month, took a year to compile and all voters are identified by his or her photograph, fingerprints and personal details, which has eliminated more than 12.7 million fake voters.

“It’s a great milestone for the country. On average over 75 per cent votes were cast and our electoral reforms worked. There was no violence, no intimidation and no fake votes or ballot stuffing,” Hussain said.

“It sends a positive message to the voters that the country’s next elections are going to be free, fair and peaceful.”

The emergency was imposed after one of Bangladesh’s main parties, the Awami League, accused the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — which ran the last government — of rigging elections. The dispute degenerated into strikes and violent protests, paralysing the economy and prompting the army to step in. More than 5,000 independent election observers, including teams from the European Union, monitored yesterday’s vote, with one saying it was the “best local election held in the country since it became independent from Pakistan in 1971.”

Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, head of National Election Observation Council, told AFP the vote gave a promising signal that a government plan to restore democracy by holding general elections at the end of the year was possible.

“It inspires confidence in the electoral roadmap to restore democracy in the country.”

Awami League, the party of ex-Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed — out on bail from corruption charges and in the US — won all four city mayoral posts and eight out of nine municipalities.

The party, which ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, expressed its satisfaction at the voting.

The BNP of her bitter rival Khaleda Zia, who was the last elected prime minister of the country but has been detained on graft links, was roundly defeated in yesterday’s elections.