By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is poised to return to office for a record fourth time after Bangladesh’s ruling alliance won Sunday’s general election, a vote tainted by reports of deadly violence, intimidation and allegations of massive irregularities.
Hasina, 71, is heading to a third straight term as the nation’s leader after her Awami League party led an alliance that defeated the opposition in a landslide, despite criticism that her government had grown authoritarian.
The 11th general election was the first one contested in 10 years, but the opposition that had boycotted the last balloting in 2014 labeled Sunday’s polls as “farcical,” leveling accusations that votes were stolen and ballot boxes were stuffed, among other allegations.
“We have received news of these types of vote robbery from almost all constituencies,” NUF leader Kamal Hossain said, adding that more than 100 candidates from different parties had walked out of the race at midday.
He said the alliance had received information from several constituencies that, “in coordination with election officials, some perpetrators [had] stamped ballots for the Boat and filled up ballot boxes last night,” he said, referring to the logo of the Awami-led Grand Alliance.
“Therefore we call to the Election commission to cancel/scrap this election right now. We reject so-called results of this election and demand a re-election under a nonpartisan government,” he said. Hossain was alluding to a pre-campaign demand by the opposition that a neutral caretaker administration govern the country during the polling season.
Meanwhile, at least 16 political-related killings had occurred nationwide in the 24 hours leading up to and covering Election Day, police said.
Voting was suspended during the day at 22 out of 40,000 polling sites because of violence, said Helal Uddin Ahmed, secretary of the Election Commission.
“Other than these violent incidents, the voting took place peacefully,” he said.
When the polls opened at 8 a.m. Sunday, the streets of the capital Dhaka were mostly deserted despite a heavy presence of security personnel at voting centers.
PM: The people ‘will vote for Boat’
Hasina cast her vote in the morning at Dhaka City College.
“The people of Bangladesh will vote for Boat. We have all felt the trust they have vested in us. Therefore, we must ensure that the credibility of the elections is not questioned,” the prime minister said in comments broadcast on Ekkator TV, a local station.
She and her Awami League party focused the election campaign on her government’s economic achievements. These featured an annual average growth rate above 6 percent during the past 10 years, fueled mostly by the nation’s garment industry, which generated U.S. $28 billion from 2016 to 2017.
The election took place amid international criticism and concern over whether the vote would be free, fair and held under safe conditions.
U.S. envoy Earl Miller, in a statement issued by the American embassy in Dhaka, had urged the government to provide conditions for citizens to “feel safe to go to the polls.”
There must also be space, he said, for peaceful expression and assembly and “for independent media to do its job covering electoral developments; for participants to have access to information; and for all individuals to be able to partake in the electoral process without harassment, intimidation, or violence.”
Voter turnout was low in Dhaka, presiding officers of polling places told BenarNews.
“The presence of voters is thin due to the cold. I hope the presence will go up as the temperature goes up,” said Mohammad Ruhul Amin, at the women’s polling booth at Manatat International School in the Gulshan neighborhood.
Poll monitors representing the opposition coalition had not turned up at two polling places, election officers said.
“The vote has been going on peacefully but voter presence is very low. The agent of the Sheaf of Paddy has not been allowed to come,” Sohel Rana, a monitor for the faith-based Islami Andolon party, told BenarNews, referring to the logo of the opposition NUF alliance.
The absence of opposition monitors raised concerns about possible voting irregularities.
“Every minute I am receiving phone calls from different parts of the countries, they are saying our monitors are forced to leave centers,” Kamal Hossain told reporters earlier in the day.
According to Mahbub Talukder, an election commissioner, no poll monitors from opposition parties were at the Dhaka voting center where he cast his vote.
“Apart from this, there have been allegations of irregularities from all over the country,” he said.
Commenting on reports about irregularities, K.M. Nurul Huda, the chief election commissioner, said he had heard of “minor isolated incidents” in Chittagong, Noakhali and other areas.
“It is not possible to control the events sitting in Dhaka,” said Huda, who had assured the public on Friday that the election would be “free, fair and festive.”
In southeastern Bangladesh, on the orders of the Election Commission, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees were barred from leaving their camps and settlements on Saturday and Sunday over concerns that these stateless people from Myanmar could be manipulated to cast fake votes in the Dec. 30 polls, officials and locals said.
Up to 104.2 million voters were eligible to cast ballots for 299 parliamentary seats in Sunday’s election. Only 151 seats were needed to secure victory under Bangladesh’s first-past-the-post electoral format.
Hasina led the ruling Grand Alliance coalition against an opposition bloc whose iconic leader, former three-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was sidelined from the contest. Zia was disqualified because of her conviction and imprisonment in early 2018 on corruption charges, which she and her supporters said were politically motivated.
Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) spearheads a newly the formed NUF alliance, NUF, which was being led in her absence by Kamal Hossain.
The 84-year-old former senior Awami League official is an ex-protégé of Hasina’s assassinated father, the first leader of Bangladesh. Hossain, however, was not running for a parliamentary seat.
“There should be a very decisive victory for the opposition if it’s free and fair,” Hossain told The Associated Press in an interview on the eve of the vote. “If there is some kind of a decision in favor of the present government, I can assure you that it will not be a free and fair election.
However, reports of deadly violence and intimidation carried out by activists from all sides overshadowed the run-up to Sunday’s polls.
On Sunday, violent incidents reported at polling sites included an alleged attack on a group of writers and photographers. Among them was Shahidul Alam, an acclaimed photojournalist who was jailed without charge for more than three months in 2018 on suspicion of violating the country’s defamation laws.
A group of men, including one who wore an Awami emblem around his neck, roughed up Alam and another photographer after ordering them to stop taking photos at a Dhaka area polling center at a local school, Alam said on his website, noting that he and the others in his party were accredited.
According to the Thailand-based Asian Network for Free Elections, which cited media reports, five people were killed and 2,682 injured in poll-related violence in Bangladesh as of last Thursday.
On Saturday, the army chief urged voters to not be afraid to venture out to the polls, saying 50,000 soldiers were being deployed nationwide to safeguard voting centers.
“I am telling the voters to go to the polling centers without any fear. You cast your votes; we will be around … We are trying our best so that no one can create any anarchy,” Gen. Aziz Ahmed told reporters, according to the Daily Star.
“We want a good election,” he said. “[W]e will be alert so that no one can spread fear.”
‘Will I be able to cast my vote?’
Prior to the balloting, voters expressed concerns that the election would be free and fair, despite reports of political violence on all sides during the campaign.
“When we go to campaign for our candidate, we hear two questions: ‘Will I be able to cast my vote?’ and ‘Will there be any violence on Election Day?’” Umme Habiba Benozir, a student at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
On Friday, BNP Senior Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told reporters in Dhaka that party leaders, candidates and activists had been targeted in nearly 2,900 attacks by Awami supporters since polls were first announced Nov. 8.
“The armed Awami League men have been parading in the villages,” Rizvi said, adding that intimidation and violence had prevented opposition politicians from campaigning.
Hours after the election began, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, slammed the government for holding the election “in a highly repressive political environment that has seriously undermined the credibility of the process.”
“The ruling Awami League has used state agencies to engage in widespread surveillance and a crackdown on free speech, which have contributed to a climate of fear,” he told BenarNews.
Bangladesh authorities have tried to stifle dissent and criticism including on newspapers, television networks, and on social media, Adams said.
“The police have arrested and detained opposition members, but failed to act properly against ruling party supporters when they target opposition supporters.”
Jesmin Papri and Prapti Rahman in Dhaka contributed to this report.