Voting has ended in Bangladesh's general election, which was hit by violence, voting irregularities and rigging allegations. PM Sheikh Hasina is widely expected to win a historic but controversial fourth term.
Polling stations have closed in Bangladesh's general election that is widely expected to hand a third straight term to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Unofficial results are expected to be out by Monday morning.
The election took place following a weekslong campaign that was dominated by deadly violence and allegations of a crackdown on thousands of opposition activists. Opposition supporters said their workers faced attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests in the run-up to the poll. Authorities deployed more than 700,000 troops and security personnel to maintain order during the vote.
Despite beefed up security, at least 12 people were reportedly killed in clashes on election day. Three men were shot dead by security forces while eight others died in clashes between activists from the ruling Awami League party and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), police said Sunday.
Some voters complained they could not cast their ballots due to technical problems.
"I came to the polling station around 7:45 am to cast my vote, but I couldn't do so as I couldn't find my serial number on the list. I sent an SMS to the election commission to receive my number but did not get any response," Mohibullah, a voter in Dhaka, told DW.
Local media reported that the opposition Bangladesh National Party's "polling agents" (who monitor the voting process on behalf of their party) are missing from the voting centers. Former PM Khaleda Zia's BNP claimed that many of its "polling agents" had been arrested before election day.
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Dhaka in a state of lockdown
Squeezed between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries, with a population of more than 160 million people. But Dhaka — a megacity of 14 million people — appeared deserted ahead of election day. Shopping malls were closed and public transport was suspended. The government imposed a ban on motorcycles, a commonly used means of transport for the majority of residents. Mobile phone and internet services were also shut down without any prior notice.
The government set up more than 42,000 polling centers across the country, with more than 104 million Bangladeshis eligible to cast their vote, nearly one-fourth of whom were eligible to vote for the first time.
Authorities also deployed more than 50,000 troops across the country as fears of Islamist attacks remain high in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation.
While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party enjoyed a free hand to campaign for the crucial vote, the country's main opposition party, the BNP, has claimed that more than 10,500 of its active members have been arrested since the election schedule was announced in November.
At least 28 BNP candidates were injured during the election campaign, which turned violent in many parts of the country. Two BNP members were also killed in clashes with ruling party supporters.
Hasina has led the Awami League party since 1980. One of the country's two largest parties, it has been in power since 2008. Hasina's main opponent is former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP. The BNP boycotted the last national election in 2014.
Zia is currently incarcerated on corruption charges, which her backers say are politically motivated. She has also been disqualified to run in the election due to her legal issues.
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"The government wants a one-sided election. It has arrested thousands of our party members on false charges in the past few weeks. Many of our nominated polling agents have also been arrested," said Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP's senior joint secretary.
Both Zia and Hasina have served as the prime minister of Bangladesh at some point since democracy returned to the country in 1990. The founder of modern Bangladesh, Hasina's father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated with most of his family members in a military coup on August 15, 1975. The country spent 15 years under military rule after the assassination and, although democracy was restored in 1990, the political scene remains volatile.
'International community has chosen to look the other way'
The United Nations, the United States and European Union called for a "peaceful, credible and inclusive" general election in Bangladesh, but some experts are of the view that the international community did not use its clout to ensure fair elections in the country.
Fewer than 200 international observers monitored the Sunday vote, leaving the door open for rigging. In comparison, the 2008 election saw around 600 international election observers participating in the process.
"I am not satisfied with the role of the international community with respect to the election in Bangladesh. Although they have rightly praised Hasina for her administration's role in dealing with the Rohingya crisis, they have wrongly decided to support a 'dictator,' which is probably a convenient thing to do," Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photographer, told DW.
"The support for democracy is rhetorical; in reality the international community has done very little to ensure it," said Alam, who was recently released from jail after spending over 100 days behind bars for supporting an anti-government student protest.
"Because Hasina has delivered on some of the things that are important for the West, namely the war on terror and economic interests, the international community has chosen to look the other way," Alam said.
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Free speech under attack
Rights group Amnesty International has urged Bangladeshi authorities to investigate attacks on journalists and activists ahead of the parliamentary vote. On December 24, at least 12 journalists came under attack by a group of 30 to 35 men, allegedly supporters of the ruling party.
"The authorities must impartially investigate these attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice. Such incidents are detrimental to a peaceful atmosphere for people to exercise their civil and political rights," Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International's South Asia Campaigner, said in a statement.
Ahead of the vote, Syed Ashfaqul Haque, the executive editor of Bangladesh's English newspaper The Daily Star, told DW that journalists covering Sunday's election could come under attack.
"We are afraid to send out our reporters to different polling stations," Haque told DW. ''Our reporters have been assaulted in the past. Their right to enter polling stations and observe the election process has also been denied by the government."
Haque also blamed the election commission for not reprimanding the government. ''Interestingly, the election commission has remained silent over these incidents. So, we can't expect support from the local administration as well as from the security agencies," he said.
However, Bangladesh's election commissioner Rafiqul Islam said attacks on journalists would not be tolerated. "Also, there are no restrictions on journalists that are covering the election. They can report freely," he said.