- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DHAKA, Bangladesh | Newspaper and television reports say the political alliance of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken a lead in elections aimed at restoring democracy to the troubled South Asian nation.

The English-language Daily Star newspaper reported early Tuesday that the alliance led by Mrs. Hasina’s Bangladesh Awami League party has won 153 seats out of 300.

The main opponent led by Mrs. Hasina’s archrival Khaleda Zia has won 18 seats in the Parliament.

Television stations ATN Bangla and Ekushey TV also reported that Mrs. Hasina’s alliance was well ahead of its opponents. The media organizations say they obtained early results from election officials at vote counting stations.

Mrs. Zia’s party said late Monday that there were irregularities and forgery in the voting processes but would not comment on the initial results.

Tens of millions of voters cast their votes Monday as the country held the first election in seven years after two years of emergency rule.

Security was tight and voting was the most peaceful in decades - a stark contrast to the failed elections of 2007, which dissolved into street riots and prompted a military-backed interim government to take over.

Voter turnout was high, with about 70 percent of the 81 million eligible voters casting ballots, said election official Humayun Kabir.

“I’m here to choose the right person to lead our country,” said S.A. Quader, a 57-year-old businessman who voted in the capital, Dhaka. “I’m confident the election will be free and fair.”

But with no fresh faces in the contest, many fear that the vote will just mean a return to the corruption, mismanagement and paralyzing protests of previous attempts at democracy.

“Apparently parliamentary democracy is on the march again,” said Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a political analyst and head of Center for Development Research of Bangladesh. “But doubt remains whether it solves the old problems.”

Both leading parties campaigned on similar platforms of reducing corruption and controlling inflation. One of the few policy differences is that Mrs. Hasina’s party is seen as relatively secular and liberal, while Mrs. Zia has allies among Islamic fundamentalists.

The two women have traded power several times. Mrs. Zia was elected prime minister in 1991, Mrs. Hasina in 1996, and Mrs. 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.

More than 650,000 police officers and soldiers had been deployed across the country in a bid to prevent voter fraud and the violence that marred the last attempt at a national vote.

To prevent cheating this time, the interim government compiled a new electoral roll including voters’ photographs. About 200,000 election observers, including more than 2,000 foreigners, monitored voting nationwide.

There were scattered allegations of fraud and voter intimidation Monday, as well as clashes between supporters of rival candidates that left 28 people injured, according to the United News of Bangladesh agency and the ATN Bangla television station. Local officials could not be reached for confirmation.

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