Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, has moved a step closer to a return to democracy with a relatively peaceful parliamentary election. Officials say about 70 percent of the 81 million eligible voters went to the polls Monday. The Awami League, under former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, appears poised to form a new government based on Tuesday's early results for the 300-seat parliament. But it remains to be seen if the outcome will be accepted peacefully by the losers.
Initial Results Point to Landslide
Defying a ban on political activity in effect until Thursday, chants and cheers erupted on the streets of Dhaka for Awami League leader Hasina's motorcade.
Party officials deemed the celebration premature but just hours later, as initial results were tabulated amid projections of a landslide, it became apparent Hasina will most likely be Bangladesh's next prime minister.
Immediately after casting her own ballot, Sheikh Hasina told reporters she hoped to be serving the country again soon. But she said that no matter the results, Bangladeshis should accept the outcome.
The former prime minister spoke of irregularities with ballot papers at some polling stations and said there have been reported attempts of vote buying by rival parties.
Rival Zia Alleges Mismanagement at Polling Stations
Hasina's long-time bitter rival, Khaleda Zia, complained about alleged mismanagement of some polling stations.
Zia, who is also a former prime minister and a member of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says voting hours should have been extended because of the slow progression to the ballot boxes in many places.
Several incidents of violence were reported and there were some election-related arrests around the country. But the polling, according to monitors, appeared relatively trouble-free compared to many previous elections here.
EU Observers Deem Balloting 'Credible'
The voting was monitored by 200,000 observers, including hundreds of accredited foreigners. The European Union team deemed the balloting "credible."
U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty visited polling stations in the capital.
"I noticed that a few people were not able to actually climb the stairs up to the voting booths," said Moriarty. "In some instances the police and the [paramilitary] Bangladesh Rifles were helping to carry them."
The interim government put hundreds of thousands of soldiers and law enforcement officers on the streets and banned motorized vehicles in major cities to minimize potential trouble.
A History of Autocratic Rule
Since gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh, a county of about 150 million people, has spent more than half of that time under autocratic rule.
But economist and former Bangladeshi ambassador to Indonesia Salma Khan says that does not mean her country is incapable of sustained democratic governance.
"We have had two former governments who completed their tenure so I don't think that we have a bad record," Khan said. "But this time I feel that it also depends to a large extent on the people. Not only the politicians who are the major factor. It is a very different generation right now. And I do feel strongly that we will have a continued democracy."
Hasina and Zia contentiously traded power during a 15-year period. Both were jailed on graft charges by the army-backed interim government, which conducted a campaign during the past two years attempting to eradicate a legacy of widespread corruption in politics and business.