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Impressive turnout marks B'desh polls

world Updated: Dec 29, 2008 19:40 IST
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A huge voter turnout of over 80 per cent on Monday marked Bangladesh's first general election in seven years after two years of emergency rule, with the 'battling begums' Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia appeared locked in a close race to reclaim power.

Amid unprecedented security, Bangladeshis gave an overwhelming response to the landmark election, which was largely peaceful, paving the way for the impoverished country's return to democracy.

Voting for the 300 seats in the National Assembly at 35,263 polling booths across the country began at 8 am and closed at 4 pm, though at some places, where the voters were still queued up after the closing time, authorities said all of them were allowed to exercise their franchise.

The heavy voting made it appear that the battle between the two 'begums', former premiers Zia and her arch-rival Hasina, would be very close.

Officials, poll monitors and local media reported sporadic incidents of violence from several districts, including the southern Madaripur where 18 people were injured in clashes between rival candidates.

"Voting has ended across the country peacefully with huge turnout of voters," an Election Commission spokesman said, adding the counting was launched as the unofficial results were expected by early Tuesday.

EC officials estimated that more than 80 per cent of the over 81 million eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots in the polls, for which 1,552 candidates were in the fray, as the country witnessed tight security with 6.5 lakh army men and police keeping a sharp vigil to avert clashes between rivals or militant attacks.

Hasina's Awami League-led grand alliance and her arch-rival Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-headed four-party grouping appeared to be the major contenders to form the next government.

After casting her vote in Dhaka, Hasina, 61, claimed that she received complaints from several constituencies that ballot papers were supplied in advance to BNP-led alliance activists and sought immediate action from the Election Commission.

Zia, 63, however, expressed satisfaction over the polling process "so far" while talking to newsmen after casting her vote at the Adamjee Cantonment College polling station.

But, her party spokesman Nazrul Islam Khan alleged the administration harassed their supporters and activists in different areas.

Voters and several election observers said the polling process was slow in many centres while in some places complications arose with the addresses and names of voters as listed in the electoral roll.

Election coordinator Rafiqul Islam, however, said directives were issued to the returning and presiding officers to ignore minor mistakes to allow voters to cast their votes.

This was the country's first ever election with digital electoral roll along with photographs under the military-backed interim government, which lifted the state of emergency on December 17.

No pre-poll violence was reported as electioneering ended on Friday midnight but officials and reports said a number of people were arrested as rival candidates at several places tried to distribute money in city slums and remote villages in their bid to buy votes ahead of the polls.