Bangladesh was voting Sunday 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”.
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.
But 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 waiting reporters after casting her vote at the Dhaka City College.
“I am trying my best to ensure that democracy should continue in this country,” she added.
Early signs suggested turnout would be low, despite widespread reports of carrot-and-stick inducements aimed at bolstering the poll’s legitimacy.
Two hours after voting began, only 111 people had cast ballots out of the nearly 4,200 registered at one polling station in Dhaka’s west, presiding officer Prashun Goswami told AFP.
“I don’t have any interest in participating in this farce,” charity worker Shahriar Ahmed, 32, told AFP.
“I would rather stay home and watch movies.”
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.
“They said since the government feeds us, we have to vote for them,” Lal Mia, 64, told AFP in the central district of Faridpur.
The BNP and other parties staged months of protests last year, demanding 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.
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.
Polls will stay open until 5:00 pm local time (1100 GMT), with results expected after midnight.
Politics in the world’s eighth-most populous country was long dominated by the rivalry between Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding leader, and two-time premier Khaleda Zia, wife of a former military ruler.
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.
Zia, 78, was convicted of graft in 2018 and is now in ailing health at a hospital in the capital Dhaka, with her son Tarique Rahman helming the BNP in her stead from exile in London.
Rahman told AFP that his party, along with dozens of others, had refused to participate in a “sham election”.
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.
On Saturday, seven opposition party members were arrested over the latest in a series of deadly train fires in Dhaka the day before. The BNP has denied responsibility and demanded an international probe.
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 percent of the country’s $55 billion 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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