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Awami League wins Bangladeshi polls

With 260 of 300 parliamentary seats, 14-party coalition led by former premier Sheikh Hasina gains biggest victory in country's history.

Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League president, right, receives flowers from supporters at her residence in Dhaka yesterday.
Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League president, right, receives flowers from supporters at her residence in Dhaka yesterday.

DHAKA // Sheikh Hasina's Awami League-led coalition has been voted into power in Bangladesh with an overwhelming majority in the first election in seven years. Her 14-party coalition, known as the Grand Alliance, has won 263 seats so far in the 300-seat Bangladeshi parliament, trouncing the four-party alliance of Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which gained only 31 seats. Sheikh Hasina's party alone won 229 seats in its biggest win since the country gained independence in 1971. Officials have only released the outcome of 295 seats and did not say when full results would available. "[The Awami League] has a clear majority to govern without any other party," S M Asaduzzaman, a Bangladeshi Election Commission official, said yesterday. Bangladeshis turned out in large numbers on Monday, with 70 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots. These elections were supposed to have taken place in Jan 2007, but were suspended after months of political turbulence. In the last two years, Bangladesh has been ruled by an army-backed caretaker government. While the streets of Dhaka are still festooned with buntings and political banners, the victory rallies were missing as they have been prohibited by the caretaker government. That did not stop some jubilant supporters of the Awami League from roaming the suburbs, thanking the people for their vote. But generally things were calm in the aftermath of an election that returned Sheikh Hasina to power. She had previously served as prime minister from 1996 to 2001. "It hardly feels like an election," said Ayesha Kabir, the editor of Probe, a weekly magazine. "It is never this quiet when a political party wins." "People have spoken for a change," said Mustafizur Rahman, the executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think tank. "A change for the better." The key challenge for the new government, he added, would be reinvigorating Bangladesh's flailing economy. Forty per cent of Bangladesh's population languishes below the poverty line. "It will be a key challenge to bring down inflation, which hovers around the seven per cent mark," he said. "Food prices are currently back-breaking in Bangladesh. Rice per kilo used to cost 17 takka [Dh9] in mid-2006. Now it costs 30 takka. "Another key challenge will be to create employment," he added. According to the CPD, the unemployment rate in Bangladesh stands at 45 per cent but that includes both the unemployed and those considered underemployed. Because the Awami League now has a clear majority in the parliament and is not answerable to other coalition partners, political observers say it will be important that its power is held in check. Bangladesh is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, and Sheikh Hasina has been jailed on corruption charges in the past. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNP's key ally in the four-party alliance, won only two seats, down from 17 in the 2001 election. Analysts say the public rejection of Jamaat-e-Islami, denounced by many secular-minded Bangladeshis for festering radical Islamic ideals, sends a strong message. Many Bangladeshis repudiate the idea of mixing religion with politics, and "anyone even mildly religious-minded, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, was rejected outright by the people in these elections," Ms Kabir said. The real test now, say analysts, will be whether BNP supporters will accept their resounding defeat. Bangladesh has witnessed election-related violence in the past. The BNP has filed a complaint with Bangladesh's Election Commission, saying there were voting irregularities and ballot rigging in 220 polling stations across 72 constituencies. But Shamsul Huda, Bangladesh's chief election commissioner, said the voting arrangements were foolproof, and unlike in previous elections, this vote was not marred by vote-rigging. "The voting was arranged in such a way that there is no scope for rejecting the result," he said. "About 1,500 foreign and 200,000 local observers were monitoring the whole election process, and there is no reason for anyone to complain." These elections were not blatantly unfair nor was there an overt attempt to manipulate the vote, Ms Kabir said. The election platforms of both parties were not radically different, offering voters similar promises, and the BNP had a good chance of doing well, she said. In fact, a countrywide exit poll conducted a month ago by her magazine showed the BNP with a slight edge over the Awami League, but the results revealed yesterday painted a far different picture. "Where have all the traditional BNP voters disappeared, I wonder," Ms Kabir said. Manik Khan, who works in a bakery in Lalbagh, a grubby suburb in the old town of Dhaka, said he feared the country might return to graft-ridden politics. "The losing party does not graciously accept defeat," he said. "The Awami League says if you vote for them, Bangladesh will be heaven. The BNP says if you vote for them, they'll make Bangladesh heaven. "I don't think either can make Bangladesh heaven, but a government elected by the people is better than a military-backed dictatorship." achopra@thenational.ae