Image: Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh
Pavel Rahman  /  AP
Bangladeshi former prime minister and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote Monday in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
updated 12/30/2008 4:03:26 PM ET 2008-12-30T21:03:26

Bangladesh's first election in seven years — which returned former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power in a landslide — was largely free and fair, observers said Tuesday in a positive omen for the country long plagued by corruption and misrule.

But plans by the party of Hasina's bitter rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, to contest the results of the vote indicated she will find it difficult to escape the paralyzing power struggles of the past.

The voting Monday, which heralded Bangladesh's return to democracy after two years of military-backed rule, was the most peaceful in decades — a stark contrast to the failed elections of 2007, which dissolved into street riots and prompted the emergency measures.

And despite Zia's party charging that Hasina's two-thirds majority was the result of widespread voter fraud, both Bangladeshi and international observers expressed satisfaction with the voting process.

"This has been a very free and fair election," said Election Commission Secretary Humayun Kabir, who had 20,000 observers monitoring the vote.

'Accept the results and work together'
International observers urged the opposition to accept the results.

"The (election) process appears to have yielded a result that accurately reflects the will of Bangladeshi voters," said Constance Berry Newman, the head of a 65-person delegation from the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes democracy.

Newman said, "political parties, candidates and citizens should accept the results and work together for a peaceful transition of power."

The head of the EU monitors, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, said his people "reported a peaceful atmosphere and a professionally administered voting and counting process."

The United States also welcomed the successful vote.

"All Bangladeshis can take great pride in the success of these elections," said a State Department statement. "The high voter turnout underscores the people's desire to see democracy restored as well to have a voice in their future."

Nevertheless, Zia's party filed complaints with the Election Commission, charging ballot-rigging and forgery at 220 polling stations, including election officials registering fake votes.

Kabir said the commission would investigate the complaints.

Voter rolls cleaned up ahead of election
Much of the credit for the smooth vote stems from a massive operation by the military — backed by financing from the United Nations — to clean up the voter rolls.

More than 81 million eligible voters were photographed and provided national ID cards in a process that helped root out about 10 million fake or duplicate names from the previous voter list.

But their attempts to crack down on corruption had mixed results — including the failure to prevent Hasina and Zia from competing in these elections. Both were among more than 200 top politicians charged with corruption. They were freed by the high court before the elections.

The two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics for the last two decades — more a reflection on the region's penchant for political dynasties than the role of women in this Muslim nation.

Rivals offered similar platforms
Though bitter rivals, their parties campaigned on similar platforms of reducing corruption and controlling inflation. One of the few policy differences is that Hasina's party is seen as relatively secular and liberal, while Zia has allies among Islamic fundamentalists.

Analysts said unless Hasina pushed ahead with the anti-corruption drive, Bangladesh would lose the gains of the election and likely revert to the corruption, mismanagement and political power struggles that have paralyzed the previous attempts at democracy.

"Corruption cases against politicians, including Sheikh Hasina and her other party leaders, must be allowed to continue without government interference," said Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University.

Another key test would be the rural council elections set for January, he said. "Hasina's government must ensure there is no political interference into the polls."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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