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Bangladesh votes in election without opposition

Bangladesh was voting today in an election guaranteed to give a fifth term in office to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, after a boycott led by an opposition party she branded a “terrorist organisation”.

Ms Hasina has presided over breakneck economic growth in a country once beset by grinding poverty, but her government has been accused of rampant human rights abuses and a ruthless opposition crackdown.

Her party faces almost no effective rivals in the seats it is contesting but has avoided fielding candidates in a few constituencies, an apparent effort to avoid the legislature being branded a one-party institution.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose ranks have been decimated by mass arrests, has called a general strike and urged the public not to participate in what it calls a “sham” election.

But Ms Hasina, 76, called for citizens to cast their ballots and show their faith in the democratic process.
“The BNP is a terrorist organisation,” she told reporters after casting her vote.

“I am trying my best to ensure that democracy should continue in this country,” she added.

Polls will stay open until 5pm local time (11am Irish time), with results expected after midnight local time.

Early signs suggested that turnout would be low, despite widespread reports of carrot-and-stick inducements aimed at bolstering the poll’s legitimacy.

As of noon, according to Election Commission Secretary Jahangir Alam, turnout stood at 18.5 percent.

BNP head Tarique Rahman, speaking from Britian where he lives in exile, said he worried about ballot stuffing.

“I fear that the election commission may increase voter turnout by using fake votes,” he told AFP.

Some voters said earlier they had been threatened with the confiscation of government benefit cards needed to access welfare payments if they refused to cast ballots for the ruling Awami League.

The BNP and other parties staged months of protests last year, demanding Ms Hasina step down ahead of the vote.

Around 25,000 opposition cadres including the BNP’s entire local leadership were arrested in the ensuing crackdown, the party says. The government puts the figure at 11,000.

Small and scattered protests continued in the days ahead of the election – a shadow of the hundreds of thousands seen at rallies last year.

Today, police in the port city of Chittagong said they had fired shotguns to break up a rally of up to 60 opposition members who had blocked a road using burning tyres, adding that no one was injured.

The election commission said nearly 700,000 police officers and reservists had been deployed to keep order during the vote along with nearly 100,000 members of the armed forces.

Politics in the world’s eighth-most populous country was long dominated by the rivalry between Ms Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding leader, and two-time premier Khaleda Zia, wife of a former military ruler.

Ms Hasina has been the decisive victor since returning to power in a 2009 landslide, with two subsequent polls accompanied by widespread irregularities and accusations of rigging.

Ms Zia, 78, was convicted of graft in 2018 and is now in ailing health at a hospital in Dhaka, with her son Tarique Rahman helming the BNP in her stead from London.

Rahman told AFP that his party, along with dozens of others, had refused to participate in a “sham election”.

Ms Hasina has accused the BNP of arson and sabotage during last year’s protest campaign, which was mostly peaceful but saw several people killed in police confrontations.

The government’s security forces have long been dogged by allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances – charges it rejects.

The United States, the biggest export market for the South Asian nation of 170 million, has imposed sanctions on an elite police unit and its top commanders.

Economic headwinds have left many dissatisfied with Hasina’s government, after sharp spikes in food costs and months of chronic blackouts in 2022.

Wage stagnation in the garment sector, which accounts for around 85% of the country’s $55bn in annual exports, sparked industrial unrest late last year that saw some factories torched and hundreds more shuttered.

Pierre Prakash of the International Crisis Group said Hasina’s government was clearly “less popular than it was a few years ago, yet Bangladeshis have little real outlet at the ballot box”.

“That is a potentially dangerous combination.”

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