The memory of assassinated president Ziaur Rahman proved an overwhelmingly strong pull for the voters of Bangladesh who went to the polls yesterday and gave a commanding lead to Zia's choice as his successor in this desperately poor nation.

With more than half of the nation's 21,865 polling stations reporting by midmorning, acting president Abdus Sattar, 76, held a commanding 3-to-1 lead over his opponent, Kamal Hossain, the candidate of the opposition Awami League.

The Awami League led the struggle for Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, and its leader, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, declared himself president following independence in 1971. He was assassinated in the 1975 military coup which led to Zia's assumption of power.

Sattar, who became acting president when Zia was killed in May in what has been described here as an Army mutiny, had been favored. The apparent size of his victory, however, astonished diplomats and political observers here and brought immediate charges from Kamal that the election had been rigged.

"These are no election results, we cannot accept them. They will not go unchallenged," Kamal said in a press conference that echoed preelection statements that the balloting would be rigged to insure Sattar's election.

There has been widespread concern here that the party would take to the streets if it lost what it considered a rigged election. The party president, Sheik Hassina Wazed, daughter of Sheik Mujibur, said Saturday, however, that the party would use "democratic means" to challenge the alleged vote rigging.

Election commission officials denied there had been any voting irregularities and representatives of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party said the heavy vote for Sattar showed the continued strong public love of Zia.

Zia was known as a supporter of the United States and Sattar is expected to continue that policy, while the Awami League generally is considered hostile to the United States. Many of its members have blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for Mujibur's assassination.

The country has been in dire economic straits since it gained independence, but under Zia, Bangladesh had won a reputation of a Third World nation doing the best it could with the help of large doses of aid to pull itself up to at least limited economic viability.

It remains, however, one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most densely populated.

Sattar campaigned on a platform of continuing Zia's development strategies for Bangladesh. The assassinated president's picture was featured at least as prominently on election posters as the actual candidate's was.

The acting president, who had to be taken from a hospital bed five months ago to announce Zia's death to the nation, has gained strength during the campaign and now looks far healthier than earlier. Due to his age, however, the former supreme court justice is viewed here as a caretaker president, and there has been intense interest in whom he would name as his vice president.

Among those mentioned prominently is the chief of staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad. While taking a publicly neutral stance and promising to use the military to uphold the constitution, Ershad is known to have supported Sattar and the ruling party.

The early cries of foul from the Awami League came as a result of amazingly fast reporting of first results from the eastern province of Chittagong showing Sattar leading with 7,000 votes to Kamal's 400. That result from five polling stations was reported on the state-run Bangladesh television within 35 minutes of poll closing.

In that time, election officials would have had to unfold and count by hand more than 7,000 ballots. Then the results would have had to be phoned in to Dacca for the broadcast. Election commission chairman Nurul Islam acknowledged that the television station had gotten the results faster than his office. But he said there was little difference between the television report and what his workers reported later.

Islam and Husain Ahmed, the chief returning officer, said they had received no substantiated report of election irregularities. Kamal, the losing Awami League candidate, said he had forwarded dozens of complaints from party workers.

"The whole election has been reduced to a fraud," Sheik Hassina told a press conference less than three hours after the polls had closed last night. While there may have been some incidents of voter fraud, the early result, coming after widespread predictions in polls of Sattar's victory by a substantial margin, also raise questions whether the real strength of the Awami League might have been overestimated.

A tour of more than a dozen polling places around the country by car and helicopter Saturday showed voters of Bangladesh taking the election very seriously. Voters turned out in large numbers in most of the country. While isolated incidents of hooliganism were reported, for the most part the voting seemed peaceful. Many Awami League agents reported no irregularities.