Bangladesh headed to the polls Sunday following a weeks-long campaign that was dominated by deadly violence and allegations of a crackdown on thousands of opposition activists.
Voting began at 8am (0200 GMT) amid tight security in a vote that is expected to deliver a historic but tainted fourth general election victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Some 600,000 security personnel are deployed across the South Asian nation — including at 40,000 polling stations.
There was fresh violence on the eve of the vote when a ruling party activist was allegedly killed by supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami. “He was attacked with rocks. He died on the way to hospital,” Mohammad Niamutullah, police chief in the southern town of Patia, told AFP.
The death brought the number of people confirmed killed by police since the timetable for the election was announced on November 8 to four, marking the country’s 11th parliamentary election since independence in 1971. The BNP claims eight of its activists have died.
Around 104 million voters are choosing between an alliance led by Hasina’s ruling Awami League party and a coalition headed by the BNP which was cobbled together only three months ago.
Opinion polls show Hasina, who has presided over impressive economic growth during an unbroken decade in power but who is also accused of growing authoritarianism, heading for a comfortable victory.
She needs 151 seats in the first-past-the-post system to win in the 300-seat parliament but experts say any victory would be sullied by accusations that she hamstrung her opponents’ campaign.
The opposition says more than 15,000 of its activists have been arrested, crippling its ability to mobilise its grassroots support.
Human Rights Watch and other international groups have decried the crackdown, saying it has created a climate of fear which could prevent supporters of opposition parties from casting their ballots.
The United States has also raised concerns about the credibility of the Muslim-majority country’s election while the United Nations has called for greater efforts to make the vote fair. Seventeen opposition candidates were arrested over what they claim are trumped up charges while another 17 were disqualified from running by courts which are allegedly controlled by Hasina.
“This is not (a) free and fair election. It is more a controlled selection,” said a Western diplomat who has been monitoring the run-up to the polls and who asked not to be named.
Badiul Alam Majumder, the leader of a Bangladesh civil society group, said the alleged crackdown had “created a perception that the incumbent government will return to power”. “Never in my life I have seen such kind of election. The election commission has totally failed to do its job,” he told AFP.
Mobile internet shutdown
The BNP, the main player in the alliance headed by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer who drew up Bangladesh’s constitution, has accused the election commission of bias — allegations it denies. Hasina herself has rejected accusations of creeping authoritarianism and called for voters to back her to further bolster the economy which has expanded over six percent a year since she won the 2008 election.
The daughter of Bangladesh’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina was gifted victory in the 2014 election when the BNP boycotted the vote claiming it wasn’t free or fair. Since then, rights groups have accused Hasina’s administration of stifling freedom of speech through the toughening of a draconian anti-press law and the enforced disappearance of government dissenters.
BNP leader Khaleda Zia, an arch-rival of the prime minister, was sentenced to 17 years in jail earlier this year on charges that her party says are politically motivated. Authorities have ordered the country’s mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumours” that could trigger unrest.
Polls close at 4pm (1000 GMT).