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Sense of joy at Bangladesh polls

Voters in Bangladesh
Many voters were pleased that the system appeared smoother
It may have been one of the coldest mornings of the year, but that did not stop millions of Bangladeshis from defying the elements in their millions to vote in the country's first national elections for seven years.

The overwhelming majority seemed happy to see the country return to democracy and the end of two years of emergency rule by the military-backed caretaker government.

The leading English language Daily Star newspaper seemed to capture the mood by describing a relaxed and happy mood among voters in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country.

Everywhere men and women patiently waited in separate lines before producing their ID cards to be checked against photographs on the electoral roll.

Hiccups

Each voter received ballot papers showing party symbols - such as a boat, a sheaf of rice stalks or a wristwatch - to help the estimated 43% of voters who are illiterate. Their thumbs were also marked to stop them voting twice.

Queuing voters in Bangladesh
Voters waited patiently to exercise their mandate

The sense of order in the voting queues was in contrast to the political turbulence Bangladesh has experienced throughout its existence of nearly four decades.

There were of course one of two hiccups in a vote which involved more than 80 million people, including incidents of violence and reports that some people had turned up at the polling booth but were not on the electoral register.

Officials say that they expect the overall turnout could be as high as 75%.

The last time 35-year-old sales representative Ayesha Akhter tried to cast her vote in a Bangladesh election, she was unable to do so because her name was not on the list - either because of an administrative error or because of poll fraud.

But this time it was different.

"It's a great feeling being able to exercise my democratic right in this festive and peaceful atmosphere," she told the AFP news agency.

Deserted streets in Dhaka
The streets were nearly deserted during the vote

"The last time I tried to vote when the elections were held in 2001, someone had already voted on my behalf. It happened to so many people I know. The last time I managed to vote was in 1996."

In an effort to combat such fraud, the caretaker government arranged for all voters to be issued with biometric photo identification cards.

The list - which took 11 months to complete - eliminated more than 11 million fake names.

There was a heavy army and police presence across the country to maintain security, with a vehicle ban in busier towns and cities.

About 32% of voters were estimated to have cast their votes for the first time.

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

Whether the peaceful atmosphere remains once the results are known is open to question.

"Everything today looks perfect," 38-year-old shopkeeper Babar Ali told AFP. "But I think all hell could break loose tomorrow if the loser doesn't accept the vote."

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