Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bangladesh Ends Military Rule

Awami League wins 231 of 297 seats in Bangladesh Elections.

Bangladesh’s former premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed won the country’s first election since 2001 in a landslide on Tuesday, December 30, 2008, crushing her rival to retake power in the south Asian nation.

The election commission said Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party had won 231 of the 297 seats in parliament counted so far, giving her an overwhelming win in Monday’s vote with just a few results still to be tallied.

“She has a clear majority to govern without any other party,” commission spokesman S. M. Asaduzzaman told AFP.

Her rival Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which won the last election in 2001 by a huge margin, garnered only 27 seats in the ballot, which ended two years of rule by an army-backed caretaker government. The BNP was allied with the religious party, Amaat-I-Islami. Meanwhile, the majority of youth and average Bangladeshi sought and responded to a mordernization message presented by Awami. The party had forwarded a plan for internet access and measures to lower food prices as part of its platform.

“There have been a lot of irregularities,” BNP spokesman Rizvi Ahmed said.

“Our supporters have been kept from voting, and our polling agents and officials have been barred from performing their duties.” Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, known as the battling begums, ruled alternately from 1991 until the interim government was installed, and their bitter personal rivalry has been blamed for paralyzing political life in the country.

The caretaker regime made efforts to shake up the system, and went so far as to jail both women for corruption, but agreed to release them to contest the election.

Although polling was peaceful, there were concerns that the restoration of democracy could see the country slip back into the negative, confrontational politics of the past.

Left: The Awami League victory sparked scenes of jubilation among the people on the streets of Bangladesh.

Newspapers hailed Sheikh Hasina’s performance, with the English-language Daily Star describing the win as “stunning” proof that the country was “hungry for change.” An UN-funded digital electoral roll, which eliminated 12.7 million fake names, appeared to have put a lid on the widespread vote rigging seen in previous polls, observers said.

Manzoor Hasan, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, said the next 48 hours would determine whether or not the BNP accepted the result.

He also warned that with such a big majority, Sheikh Hasina carried an enormous responsibility.

“This is the danger of an absolute majority with any government. The possibility that it will steamroll the opposition and do whatever the government wants to do,” he said.

The election attracted a record voter turnout of 85 per cent, with the figure reaching 90 per cent in rural areas, the Election Commission said.

A team of south Asian poll monitors concluded that voting had been “free, fair and transparent,” while EU observers also said procedures had been correctly followed.

“All Bangladeshis can take great pride in the success of these elections,” the US State Department said in a statement.

Left: Sheikh Hasina has always managed to garner support of the working classes of Bangladesh.

“The high voter turnout underscores the people’s desire to see democracy restored as well to have a voice in their future,” it said.

The Jamaat-i-Islami party, the BNP’s key partner, was way down on the 17 seats it garnered in 2001, winning just two this time.

The army-backed government took power in January 2007 following months of political unrest in which at least 35 people were killed.

Some 50,000 troops had been on alert nationwide during Monday’s voting, while 600,000 policemen were deployed to crack down on fraud or disruption at the 35,000 polling booths.

There were also 200,000 observers monitoring the poll, including 2,500 from abroad.

The Awami League, formed in 1948, traditionally had socialist economic policies but Sheikh Hasina, 61, has moved it towards the capitalist model.

Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led Bangladesh in its liberation struggle against Pakistan in 1971 and was assassinated in a 1975 military coup.

She was targeted by extremist elements in 2004, narrowly escaping a gun attack at a rally that killed 20 supporters and left her with damaged hearing.

Election Commissioner Shakhawat Hossain told AFP that although no date had been set, the new government was likely to be sworn in early next month.

“The maximum timeframe is one month but the signal that we are getting from the outgoing government is that power will be transferred by January 7,” he said.

Sheikh Hasina has since offered cabinet posts to the BNP in return for calm and cooperation.

Left: Ms Zia has rejected the poll results

Clashes erupt after Khaleda rejects poll results

Former Bangladeshi prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia, defeated by a landslide in Monday’s parliamentary election, claimed on Tuesday there had been widespread vote rigging.

Also on Tuesday, clashes between workers of the two leading political parties began, with at least one man being killed, according to a television channel.

“We have confirmed reports of rigging and other irregularities in many polling stations across the country,” Ms Zia told reporters, giving her first reaction to the election.

“So we reject the election outcome,” she said. “We are collecting details of more irregularities and will give to the media and appropriate authorities over next few days,” she told reporters at her Dhaka party office.

One man was killed and about 150 people were injured in clashes between rival political activists, a private television station reported.

“One man died in northern Pabna area, where around 50 others were injured in the clashes,” Diganta Tva said, quoting police and witnesses.

Around 100 more people were hurt in post-election violence across the country, it said.

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