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By Steve Herman
28 December 2008
For most of its history since gaining independence 37 years ago, Bangladesh has been under authoritarian rule. The country is hoping nationwide parliamentary elections Monday will be the start of a return to democracy. The vote follows an extended state of emergency during which civilian caretakers put into power by the military hoped to end a national legacy of political corruption.
The man who has led Bangladesh's caretaker government for the last two years made an election eve appeal for "mutual respect, solidarity and flexibility."
The acting prime minister, or chief advisor as he is known, Fakhruddin Ahmed, spoke for 30 minutes on national television, telling voters their one-day verdict would determine who governs Bangladesh for the next five years.
|Fakhruddin Ahmed (File)|
The chief advisor says the main goal of the caretaker government is on the verge of being fulfilled: paving the way for a free and fair election.
The interim government conducted a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign, jailing the two women who are again vying to lead the country: former prime ministers Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia. They were released from custody to participate in the election.
The country's chief election commissioner, A.T.M Shamsul Huda, in an earlier televised speech, assured voters that the balloting will be carried out peacefully and fairly thanks to photo identification of voters and translucent ballot boxes. He urged the people of Bangladesh to go to the polls in record numbers.
Addressing a concern that the mobile phone system would be shut off during balloting, Huda says a decision has been made to leave the network switched on, but voters will not be able to bring their cell phones into the polling centers.
Officials say 81 million people are eligible to vote after 12 million fake names were culled from the electoral roles.
The head of the European Union observer delegation, Charles Tannock, a member of the European Parliament, tells reporters he is impressed with the voting system the Bangladesh election commission has established.
"I have every confidence in the legal framework which has been set up by the Election Commission," he said. "I think it's a very strong system. I would go further. I'd say, in many ways, on paper stronger than what we have in the United Kingdom."
As many voters cannot read or write they will make their selections based on party or candidate symbols. Sheik Hasina's Awami League is represented by a boat while Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party uses an image from a rice paddy. Other are using marks of easily recognizable everyday items such as a sewing machine, wrist watch or a television set.
Voting will commence at eight o'clock Monday morning local time for an eight-hour period. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and law enforcement officers have been deployed to try to ensure peaceful voting and protect ballot boxes.
Bangladesh suffers from chronic poverty. The desperate state of the economy was underscored on election eve with reports from neighboring India's Andaman islands that as many as 300 Bangladeshis are feared dead after a boatload of illegal migrants unsuccessfully attempted to swim ashore.