DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh’s Election Commission is investigating allegations of vote rigging coming from across the country on Sunday, a spokesman told Reuters, as polling for a general election marred by violence ended and counting began.
A woman displays her inked thumb after casting her vote for the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Clashes between supporters of the ruling Awami League and its opponents killed at least 10 and wounded more than 20, police said, amid reports that more than three dozen opposition candidates complaining of alleged vote rigging had pulled out of the first competitive poll 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. Police said the circumstances of the attack on Salahuddin Ahmed were not yet clear.
The Election Commission said it would act if rigging was confirmed, even as at least three voters in southeast 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.”
Reuters reporters across the country of 165 million people saw sparse turnout at polling booths during the election, widely expected to be won by Prime Minister Sheikh 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 centers Reuters reporters visited in Dhaka, posters bearing the Awami League’s “boat” symbol far outnumbered those of the opposition.
Mahbub Talukdar, one of the five election commissioners who stirred a controversy last week by saying there was no level-playing field for the parties, told Reuters 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 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 300 km (186 miles) southwest of Dhaka. Media reports said across the country more than 40 out of 287 opposition candidates in fray pulled out alleging vote rigging.
There are 300 parliamentary constituencies in the country.
Rasel, a 34-year-old voter in the southeastern district of Chittagong, said he saw police and some Awami League workers he knew stopping people from entering one polling center.
“They told me that ‘voting is going on nicely, you don’t need to go inside’. If you try to enter, you will be in trouble’,” Rasel, who declined to give his second name fearing reprisals, told Reuters by phone.
The local electoral officer said he had investigated the incident and “found long queue in these centers and people were casting votes with a festive mood”. The Awami League said opposition supporters were wrongly accusing the party.
Soon after voting finished at 4 pm (1000 GMT), Reuters saw polling officials unsealing see-through ballot boxes and pouring the contents onto a blue plastic sheet on the floor of an election booth in Dhaka. TV channels have already started showing election trends and final results will be clear early on Monday.
The BNP boycotted the last election in 2014 claiming it wouldn’t be free and fair. The party has been hobbled by the absence of its chairperson Khaleda, 74, who has been in jail since February on corruption charges which she says are politically motivated.
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. Some BNP leaders and a European diplomat said they feared the election would be rigged.
Hasina’s party dismissed the opposition charges, citing “one false allegation after another for months prior to election as polls show a landslide victory” for the ruling party.
“I believe that people will cast their votes in favor of Awami League to continue the pace of development,” Hasina told reporters in Dhaka. “The ‘boat’ will surely win. I believe in democracy and I have confidence in the people of my country.”
But opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said a win for his side was “inevitable if the election is free and fair”.
Hasina has already invited foreign journalists and poll observers to her official residence on Monday.
Under Hasina, the country’s $280 billion economy grew 7.8 percent in the 2017/18 financial year that ended on June 30, compared with 5.1 percent when Hasina took over in 2008/09.
Over the same period, annual sales of its economic mainstay, the garment industry, nearly tripled, with garment exports worth $30.6 billion in 2017/18, making up 83.5 percent of total exports. One of Hasina’s top jobs if she retains power will be to address demands by garment workers for a higher minimum wage.
At a polling booth in old Dhaka on Sunday, some were afraid to comment on the polls, describing an atmosphere of fear.
A middle-aged businessman who declined to be named said: “I am here to vote, but my family says, ‘what’s the point?’ The ruling party will come back in power in any case.”
Hasina has been praised internationally for providing refuge to Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, but her government is accused of suppressing dissent and jailing critics.
Hasina has faced accusations in the West of increasing authoritarianism. Her son, Wazed, told Reuters Hasina regarded such accusations as a “badge of honor”.
“This is an important election, but the condition is not peaceful in the country,” said Monir, a teacher at a madrassa. “The opposition has not been able to exercise its responsibilities properly. They are afraid.”
Additional reporting by Ruma Paul, Serajul Quadir, Rafifqur Rahman and Mohammed Ponir in Dhaka; Enamul Haque in Khulna; Hasibur Rahman in Bogra; Nazimuddin Shyamol in Chitagong; Nurul Islam is Cox’s Bazar; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean