Bangladesh: Lal Mian votes for peace and stability

As far as Lal Mian was concerned, there was peace in the countryside and enough rice at a reasonable price. The government was doing something for villages like his, and he saw no reason for a change.

So when the white-bearded farmer went to vote at the dirt-floored police station, he placed his rubber stamp next to the drawing of a sheaf of rice, symbol of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Later, with two friends nodding agreement, he said he had voted for ''shanti'' - peace.

It is such yearning for internal peace and stability - in a country that has seen precious little of either - that put the BNP candidate, Acting President Abdus Sattar, massively over the top in early returns from Sunday's presidential election.

Five and a half months ago, Bangladesh lost its last President, the charismatic Ziaur Rahman, in a hail of automatic weapons fire by Army mutineers. Under the Constitution Mr. Sattar, Zia's appointed vice-president, became acting president and has run on a platform of carrying out Zia's programs to the letter.

As early returns gave Mr. Sattar a massive lead, the key question was not whether Zia's interim successor would win the presidency in his own right, but whether the leading opposition party, the Awami League, would swallow its loss or take to the streets.

The league's presidential candidate, Kamal Hossain, said, ''What has happened today has not been an election but a conspiracy against the people underlined by violence.'' He cited party reports of injured party workers, stuffed ballot boxes, and voters driven away from the polling booths.

He also charged the acting president with publicizing favorable early returns , which he said were physically impossible to compile - such as a count of 7,400 votes from five centers near Chittagong within 35 minutes of poll closing time.

But the country's presiding election officer maintained that such a fast count was indeed possible - and denied receiving any reports of election violence and irregularities which Mr. Kamal said had been forwarded to the election commission.

A tour by this correspondent of both rural and urban polling stations showed a large, orderly turnout, with no obvious signs of intimidation or rigging.

Men and women waited in long separate lines to have their names checked against voter registration lists and have their fingers marked with indelible ink to keep them from voting twice. Then they stamped their ballots behind bamboo screens.

The long ballots, 10 by 18 inches, listed 39 presidential candidates - although nine have since withdrawn - in Bengali script with accompanying party symbols for easy recognition by illiterate voters.

Voters could stamp a banyan tree, a teacup, an airplane, a sword, a rose, or other symbols of the lesser candidates. For most, the choice boiled down to only two: the BNP's sheaf of flowering rice or the sampan-shaped boat of the Awami League and its candidate.

Abdus Sattar's campaign was an evocation of the still-fresh memory of Zia, the military man who came to power by coup and later led the country's transition back to civilian rule. Zia was best known for his personal drive to prod his country up from poverty and into food self-sufficiency, and Sattar attempted to assure voters that economic development would continue at full speed if he inherited Zia's mantle.

Kamal Hossain ran on the memory of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic political leader who became the hero of Bangladesh's successful 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and the country's first prime minister. Faced with postwar economic chaos and growing civil disorder, Mujibur later declared an emergency, abolished other political parties in favor of his own, and assumed the presidency. He was gunned down in a coup in 1975.

Both Bangladeshi and diplomatic observers characterized the campaign as relatively peaceful.

Government officials remained jittery, however, over the possibility of mass protests and violent outbursts by frustrated Awami League supporters as incoming returns showed massive Sattar majorities.

''It will not go unchallenged,'' said Mr. Kamal, who went into late meetings with his party's central committee to ''decide on the steps we will take.''

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