High turnout in Bangla polls

Dhaka, December 29:

Bangladeshis formed long lines at polling stations even before voting began today to choose a new prime minister and restore democracy after two years of emergency rule in the country’s

first election in seven years.

Residents of the capital, Dhaka, walked or rode in non-motorised rickshaws to polling stations because of government restrictions on vehicles during the vote.

Authorities have deployed 650,000 security forces across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud in the election, seen as crucial to restoring democracy in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a history of military rule and political unrest.

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 paralysing protests.

SA 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 ATM. Shamsul Huda expected high voter turnout.

“I am sure this is going to be a historic election,” he told reporters after he cast his vote in Dhaka. “The voters are waiting in long queues; that’s impressive.” More than 81 million people are eligible to cast votes in the election.

“Everything will depend on how fast results come to the commission from polling stations across the country,” said Election Commission spokesman SM Asaduzzaman.

There were concerns that the polls might degenerate into violence as the last attempt at elections last year did.

That vote was preceded by weeks of deadly rioting between the Zia and Hasina’s rival parties that prompted the military to cancel the election and declare emergency rule.