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80% vote in Bangladesh's landmark polls

Anisur Rahman in Dhaka | December 29, 2008 19:33 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, with 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 following two years of emergency rule.

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 and arch-rivals Zia and 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.

"Voting has ended across the country peacefully with huge turnout of voters," an election commission spokesman said. He added that counting had begun and the unofficial results will be out early on Tuesday.

Poll 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-headed four-party coalition appeared to be the major contenders to form the next government.

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.

The two leaders' harsh rivalry was largely blamed for the rise of confrontational politics in Bangladesh, eventually inviting the state of emergency on January 11, 2007. The election was slated for January 22 last year after being already postponed earlier amid rising political tensions.

The winning party needs 151 of the 300 seats in parliament and analysts are not calling a clear favourite yet.

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