Bangladesh goes to the polls today for the first time since 2001 in elections that will bring democratic rule back to the impoverished nation after two years under an army-backed regime.
Across the densely populated country, an unprecedented security operation was under way to curb election fraud and prevent attacks by Islamic extremists.
Some 600,000 police officers were deployed to 35,000 polling booths and 50,000 troops were present on the streets.
Police have captured two dozen militants and seized explosives, grenades and bombs in recent days, but campaigning has been free of the widespread violence seen in past elections.
“We have seen a radical change in the behavior of the parties during election campaigning,” Bangladeshi Election Commission Secretary Humayun Kabir said. “Except for some minor incidents, there has been little violence. We are confident the election will be the best in the country’s history.”
But with a third of the 81 million electorate voting for the first time, the result is uncertain, with disputes likely if the overall winner is unclear and re-counts are demanded.
The two main political leaders spent Saturday criss-crossing the country in a final appeal for votes, promising to lower food prices, fight Islamic militancy and curb corruption.
After just 16 days of frenetic campaigning, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — both gave speeches on national television.
The women, who were jailed on corruption charges by the current caretaker regime but then released to contest the elections, sought to woo undecided voters by expressing remorse over their past records.
“I know you are aware of our mistakes,” Zia said in her speech. “I ask for your forgiveness. I can assure you that we will take lessons from the past. I am human. Mistakes get made.”
Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, said she would end hunger and poverty in the grindingly poor country of 144 million people, promising to learn not only from mistakes made by her rivals but from her own errors.
“I urge the younger voters to bring us to power so we can build a country free of hunger and poverty. We want to steer the country to peace and prosperity,” she said.
The women, nicknamed the “battling begums” for their intense personal rivalry, have dominated Bangladesh’s political scene for the past two decades.
Ahead of the vote, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for peace to be maintained.