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Bangladesh returns to democracy with election

DHAKA (Reuters) - Tens of millions of Bangladeshis are expected to stream to the polls on Monday in an election that returns the country to democracy after two years of emergency rule and tests the political maturity of its leaders and people.

Supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wait as security personnel stands guard during an election campaign rally in Dhaka December 27, 2008. The general election will be held on December 29 in Bangladesh. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

The impoverished South Asian nation of more than 140 million has a history of questionable elections, sporadic periods of military rule, and politically motivated violence.

The outgoing army-backed government -- which took over amidst such violence in January 2007 and cancelled an election due that month -- says that at least when it comes to voting procedure and safety, this time things will be different.

“Perhaps we have taken the toughest ever security precautions to ensure that balloting takes place peacefully, free from rigging, intimidation and threats,” Noor Mohammad, Inspector-General of Police, told reporters on Sunday.

Bangladesh has deployed 50,000 troops, 75,000 police and 6,000 RAB members along with other auxiliary forces for security, and about 200,000 local and 2,000 foreign monitors will be at the polling centres to check procedures.

The latter include first-time-ever anti-cheating measures like picture ID cards for the 81 million eligible voters.

Some analysts are concerned that even if the election itself goes smoothly, disgruntled backers of the losers will take to the streets, as has happened in the past.

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In a pre-election broadcast on Sunday, Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the outgoing interim government, urged the public and political parties to be united and peacefully accept the results.

An alliance led by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League has the edge in the vote, most observers say. Others predict neither she nor rival and fellow ex-PM Begum Khaleda Zia will have an immediate majority.

In final broadcast speeches on Saturday, Hasina and Khaleda both said it was time to end confrontational politics in which strikes and violent street protests have been common.

But at mass rallies they have heatedly accused each other of corruption, vote-rigging and incompetence, which may set the stage for angry post-election confrontations among partisans.

On that score, police head Noor Mohammad said: “If anybody tries to do something, we will take drastic action.”

Polls open at 8 a.m. (2 a.m. British time) and close at 4 p.m.. Counting begins on Monday evening but results are not expected until Tuesday.

Post-vote turbulence, whether tied to jockeying for position in a hung parliament or to street violence, could get in the way of a new government tackling such challenges as reducing corruption and improving the economy in a nation where some 45 percent of the people live below the poverty line.

Hasina and Khaleda alternated in power for 15 years through 2006. Critics say they barely dented Bangladesh’s problems, in a large measure because their parties took to the streets in protest and strikes when out of office.

Analysts say the women’s policy differences are actually small and to attract much needed investment and aid what matters now is less who wins than post-election stability and peace.

“Once the result is known, it is vital that both the victor and the loser -- whoever they may be -- work together in the interest of the country,” Cassam Uteem, head of the Commonwealth Observer Group, told Reuters on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Nizam Ahmed and Serajul Islam Quadir; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Jeremy Laurence