Uncertainty in Bangladesh after violence-hit election

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh stared into the political abyss on Monday after the ruling Awami League romped to victory in a blood-soaked election which was dismissed as a farce by the opposition.

The outcome of Sunday's poll was never in doubt after the opposition boycotted the contest, with 153 Awami League candidates or allies elected unopposed to the 300-seat parliament even before polling day.

With results in from all but eight of the 147 contested seats, the party had been confirmed as the winner in 105, while allied parties or nominal independents mopped up the other 34. A final result was expected later on Monday.

But the deaths of at least 18 people in election-day violence, which saw hundreds of polling stations attacked by opposition supporters, underlined the polarisation in a country that only won its independence in 1971.

The election was also marred by poor turnout which hit a record low in the capital Dhaka.

The Daily Star called it the bloodiest election in Bangladeshi history and said the Awami League had won "a hollow victory which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively".

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which led a boycott of 21 opposition parties, reacted by extending a general strike until Wednesday as it pressed the government to declare the election null and void.

"The country has rejected these farcical elections which were meaningless, laughable and universally unacceptable," said deputy leader Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went ahead with the polls after refusing to bow to opposition demands to stand aside and allow them to be organised by a neutral caretaker administration, as in previous contests.

But the New Age daily said the consequences would be disastrous if the ruling party's "intransigence" continued.

"Besides further escalation of the political crisis and social disorder within, the country could be exposed to the wrath of the international community and agencies, and even face isolation - economic, diplomatic and otherwise."

Although Ms Hasina's aides say the government is keen to open dialogue with the BNP, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been under de facto house arrest for more than a week after mobilising supporters in a bid to derail the election.

Two-time former premier Zia is a bitter enemy of Ms Hasina and there is little expectation that the two women can put aside their differences.

Ms Hasina, who first came to power in 1996 and then thrashed Ms Zia in a 2008 comeback, has accused her rival of orchestrating the violence which reached a crescendo on Sunday.

Police put the overall death toll on polling day at 18 while the BNP said 22 of its followers were killed.

Voting either did not take place or was suspended in at least 436 of the 18,000 polling stations due to violence or the threat of violence, the election commission said.

Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the build-up.

There was no immediate figure for the national turnout but the election commission's top official in Dhaka said turnout in the capital was 22.8 per cent.

If that figure were replicated nationwide, it would be the lowest turnout in Bangladesh's history.

The biggest-selling Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo ran pictures on its front page of polling officials and Awami League activists stuffing ballot boxes.

The government says it had to hold the polls in January as parliament's mandate had expired.

Analysts expect the standoff will fan the flames after the deadliest year of unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan.

The former East Pakistan is the world's eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest and the turmoil will undermine efforts to improve the lot of its population of 154 million - a third of whom live below the poverty line.

A local rights group says more than 500 people have been killed since last January, including in riots that followed the conviction of Islamists for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war.

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