Clashes, rigging allegations mar Bangladesh polls

Presiding officers starting to count ballots at a voting centre in Dhaka yesterday after polling ended. There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in Bangladesh. An army vehicle patrolling the streets of Dhaka yesterday as clashes broke out across th
Voters waiting in line outside a polling station in Dhaka yesterday. Clashes between supporters of the ruling Awami League and its opponents caused the deaths of at least 17 people, police said, amid reports that more than 40 opposition candidates had pulled out of the first competitive polls in the country in a decade, complaining of vote rigging. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Presiding officers starting to count ballots at a voting centre in Dhaka yesterday after polling ended. There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in Bangladesh. An army vehicle patrolling the streets of Dhaka yesterday as clashes broke out across th
An army vehicle patrolling the streets of Dhaka yesterday as clashes broke out across the country between workers of the ruling Awami League and its opponents. PHOTO: REUTERS
Presiding officers starting to count ballots at a voting centre in Dhaka yesterday after polling ended. There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in Bangladesh. An army vehicle patrolling the streets of Dhaka yesterday as clashes broke out across th
Presiding officers starting to count ballots at a voting centre in Dhaka yesterday after polling ended. There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in Bangladesh. PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA • Bangladesh's Election Commission is investigating allegations of vote rigging that came from across the country yesterday, a spokesman said, as polling for a general election marred by violence ended and counting began.

Early results showed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was heading for a landslide victory, local TV said.

Ms Hasina raced into a clear lead, quickly securing 19 seats against zero for the opposition, according to Channel 24, which is compiling results from around the country. Final results will be clear early today.

At least 17 people were killed and more than 20 others were wounded in clashes between supporters of the ruling Awami League and its opponents, police said, amid reports that more than 40 opposition candidates complaining of vote rigging had pulled out of the first competitive polls in the country in a decade.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said one of its candidates from Dhaka was stabbed while he was moving around in his constituency.

The commission said that it would act if rigging was confirmed, even as at least three voters in south-east Bangladesh, including a journalist, said they were barred from entering polling booths or were told their ballot papers had already been filled in.

"Allegations are coming from across the country and those are under investigation," commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman said. "If we get any confirmation from our own channels, then measures will be taken as per rules."

 
 
 

Sparse turnout was observed at polling booths across the country of 165 million people during the election, widely expected to be won by Ms Hasina, giving her a third straight term in office.

Mobile Internet was blocked and the streets of the capital were largely deserted as many had left to vote in their home towns.

In nine polling centres in Dhaka, posters bearing the Awami League's "boat" symbol far outnumbered those of the opposition.

Mr Mahbub Talukdar, one of the five election commissioners who stirred controversy last week by saying that there was no level playing field for the parties, said he did not see any opposition polling agents near the Dhaka booth where he voted, suggesting they had been kept away.

The clashes in the Muslim-majority country broke out between workers of the Awami League and its opponents, led by the BNP of former prime minister Khaleda Zia.

At least one of the victims was attacked by a machete-carrying group, police said, adding that a man from a paramilitary auxiliary force also died.

Alleging vote manipulation, at least six candidates fighting against the Awami League withdrew from the contest in Khulna, a divisional headquarters 300km south-west of Dhaka.

Media reports said across the country, more than 40 out of 287 opposition candidates in the fray pulled out, alleging vote rigging. There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in the country.

Soon after voting finished at 4pm local time (6pm Singapore time), polling officials were seen unsealing see-through ballot boxes and pouring the contents onto a blue plastic sheet on the floor of an election booth in Dhaka.

The BNP boycotted the last election in 2014, claiming it would not be free and fair.

The party has been hobbled by the absence of its chairman Khaleda, 74, who has been in jail since February on corruption charges which she says are politically motivated.

Ms Hasina and Khaleda have alternated in power for most of the last three decades, and this is the first election the BNP has contested without its leader.

It stitched together the National Unity Front alliance with smaller parties, but has alleged its supporters and candidates faced attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests, at the hands of ruling party activists during campaigning.

"I believe that people will cast their votes in favour of Awami League to continue the pace of development," Ms Hasina told reporters in Dhaka.

"The 'boat' will surely win. I believe in democracy, and I have confidence in the people of my country," she said, in a reference to the party's election symbol.

But opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said a win for his side was "inevitable if the election is free and fair".

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2018, with the headline 'Clashes, rigging allegations mar Bangladesh polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe