Bangladesh: Scared voters stay away from election

Protesters damaged ballot boxes in an attack on a polling station. Picture: Getty
Protesters damaged ballot boxes in an attack on a polling station. Picture: Getty
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Police in Bangladesh fired at protesters and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations during a national election boycotted by the opposition and described as flawed by the international community.

At least 18 people were killed in the election-related violence yesterday.

A protestor is dealt with harshly by security forces. Picture: AP

A protestor is dealt with harshly by security forces. Picture: AP

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s refusal to heed opposition demands to step down and appoint a neutral “caretaker” to oversee the election led to the boycott, undermining the legitimacy of the vote, which is all but certain to return Mr Hasina to power. Opposition activists have staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades in unrest that has left at least 293 people dead since last year.

“We never expected such an election,” said Aminul Islam, a resident of the capital, Dhaka, who refused to vote. “For such a situation, both the government and opposition are responsible. They don’t want to establish democracy.”

Voter turnout appeared low, though official numbers were not immediately known.

In a statement, opposition spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir praised Bangladeshis for “rejecting this meaningless” election. Vote counting began after polls closed yesterday and official results are expected this morning.

The opposition announced a 48-hour general strike starting today to demand that the election results be voided.

HT Imam, co-chairman of the ruling Awami League’s election steering committee, accused the opposition of using violence to create panic among people. “Still, I congratulate people who ignored such threats and came to polling stations,” he said.

Police opened fire to stop protesters from seizing a polling centre in the country’s northern Rangpur district, killing two people, authorities said. In a similar incident in neighbouring Nilphamari district, police fired into about two dozen protesters, killing two people.

Another 14 people were killed in election-related violence elsewhere, including a polling official who was stabbed to death by suspected opposition activists, police and local media reports said.

Election commission officials said attackers torched at least 127 school buildings across Bangladesh in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations.

Voting was suspended in at least 390 of the country’s 18,208 polling centres because of attacks, the commission said. The opposition boycott led to 153 of parliament’s 300 elected seats going uncontested.

The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth did not send observers for what they considered a flawed election.

Local television stations showed mostly empty polling stations in the morning, though turnout seemed to improve in the afternoon. At a station in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, only 25 out of 24,000 registered voters cast ballots in the first two hours, with polling officials saying fear of violence and absence of any strong opposition had kept people away.

Turnout was better in Nawabganj district in old Dhaka. At one polling centre there about an hour before polls closed, 1,039 voters had cast ballots out of the 3,500 listed. “I’ve come to exercise my voting right. I’ve found a competent candidate too,” Mohammad Asif, a hotel employee, said after casting his vote.

Analysts say the political chaos could exacerbate the country’s economic woes.