Bangladesh election marks end of emergency rule, secular party wins big

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladeshis voted in droves Dec. 29 in elections that marked the end of two years of emergency rule, with ex-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed 's Awami League-led coalition claiming a landslide victory.

Hasina, one of two women leaders vying for prime minister, called on her supporters to exercise calm until the results were official. Her rival is Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Hasina’s coalition platform included ensuring food security and capping prices of daily essentials, increasing electricity production, curbing corruption, establishing the country as secular state under the rule of law. Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority nation and has seen a rise of extremist right-wing groups using the cloak of religion.

Some Bangladesh sources said the landslide for Hasina’s coalition was reminiscent of the historic 1970 Awami League victory that led to the 1971 birth of Bangladesh following a war of independence from Pakistan.

When the defeated British colonial rulers partitioned off Pakistan from India in 1947, they sliced East Pakistan off from Indian Bengal (now the Indian state of West Bengal). The Awami League was a champion of rights and independence for the Bangla-speaking people of East Pakistan.

Now the Awami League seems headed for a majority in Bangladesh that would give the party the power to rewrite the constitution and bring about promised reforms.

Held under tight security, the country’s first elections since 2001 attracted a turnout of 70 percent, with long lines snaked outside voting stations all day. Some reports called the voting festive and joyous.

'I'm a first-time voter and the atmosphere couldn't be any better,' Mamun Howlader, a 21-year-old mechanic, told Agence France Presse. 'There's a festive atmosphere. It's fun.'

The vote was monitored by some 200,000 electoral observers, including 2,500 from abroad.

The current army-backed government took power in January 2007 following months of political unrest in which at least 35 people were killed. The deaths prompted President Iajuddin Ahmed to cancel elections and impose a state of emergency that was lifted only on Dec. 17.

Bangladesh, a desperately poor nation of 144 million people, has a history of coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The Awami League and the BNP have often been accused of anti-democratic tactics, with both crippling the country during their spells in opposition by boycotting Parliament and staging national strikes.

Left parties like the Workers Party of Bangladesh and the Communist Party of Bangladesh also ran candidates in the election with their own far-reaching election platforms. Early reports say the Workers Party won two seats.

The Communist Party of Bangladesh is one of only four parties to advocate equality for the low-caste population known as dalits (formerly called “untouchables”). Its 24-point manifesto calls for prevention of corruption and terrorism, alleviation of poverty and creation of new jobs, trial of war criminals, a minimum wage for laborers, reinstallation of the basic pillars of the 1972 constitution, establishing a pro-people education and medical system and formation of an independent commission to prevent child labor and child repression.

Other CPB goals include: ensuring equal rights for women in all strata, providing full constitutional rights to the indigenous people, national legislation for the disabled, ensuring access for all to information technology, establishing state and social control over mineral resources, introducing full-fledged water regulation and preparing an independent and active foreign policy.

The Workers Party’s 21-point platform highlights seven main points: controlling commodity prices, eradication of poverty, establishment of rights of laborers and middle class people, ensuring the rights of women, protecting the country from the World Bank and IMF, conservation of the environment and ensuring the social security of the citizenry.