Bangladeshis began voting on Monday in the first phase of local elections, the first polls organised by the country's army-backed interim government that is working to restore democracy since it took power in early 2007.
All the candidates in Monday's polls had registered as independents because Bangladesh's election laws prevented political parties from directly contesting local councils.
But after a ruling last week by the High Court, political parties will be able to field candidates during additional rounds of local polls in coming weeks to help the parties prepare for a national election expected in December.
Voters thronged hundreds of polling stations in four city corporations and nine municipal areas, witnesses said. Casting of ballots began at 8 a.m. (0200 GMT).
"Security has been extremely tight with police and elite rapid-action battalion force on guard at and around the voting stations," a Reuters reporter said from the southern city of Khulna, 350 km (220 miles) from Dhaka.
"I have been able to vote without any hassle at all because of the photographic ID. This has been immensely helpful to voters and polling officials," said voter Rabeya Sulatana in Khulna.
The elections are also the first in the country to use a digital voters' list with photographs to avoid rigging and fake voting, which has plagued previous elections in Bangladesh.
Monday's elections are being monitored by thousands of observers from Bangladesh and abroad, and their opinion is likely to be a barometer for the success of national elections.
Sajjadur Rahman, a deputy police commissioner in northern Rajshahi city, said the "voting has been highly disciplined and peaceful in the first one and half hours".
"We hope order will prevail till the voting closes at 4 p.m. (1000 GMT)," he told reporters.
Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, chairman of the National Election Observation Council (a local monitoring group), said "voting is progressing smoothly and so far we have noticed no anomaly or breach of the codes of conduct."
"We will make a statement, possibly tomorrow, after the voting is completed," said Rols D. Reinhard, deputy head of the German embassy, while visiting polling stations in Sylhet.
In the northeastern city of Sylhet, thousands of voters braved heavy rains, to stand in line.
"This is the first opportunity we have in many years to elect a mayor and councillors in a free and unintimidating atmosphere," one Sylhet voter said.
The government has declared Monday a public holiday in polling areas.
Bangladesh remains under a state of emergency after the interim government took power in January 2007 following widespread political violence. It cancelled a national election due the same month.
Poll officials earlier said all measures had been taken to ensure a free, fair and peaceful local elections that would be a key pointer to a successful national vote.
Chief Election Commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huda has dubbed the local polls a "gateway to democracy".
Retired Brigadier-General Sakhawat Hossain, another election commissioner, said the "voting process has been a bit slow in the first hours because the voters, polling officials and agents of candidates are not very familiar with the use of ID cards.
"It takes some time to verify voters with ID cards but the process will gain speed soon," he said.
City corporations, municipalities and other local councils enjoy sweeping powers and have a strong influence in selecting candidates for national elections.
Monday's vote will be followed by a series of more local elections until October.
Last Mod: 04 Ağustos 2008, 17:38