Sunday, December 30, 2018

BANGLADESH Bangladesh votes in polls seen as referendum on authoritarian PM

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — People in Bangladesh voted Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as a referendum on what critics call Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s increasingly authoritarian rule, amid complaints from both ruling party and opposition activists of attacks on supporters and candidates.

Hasina’s main rival is former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who a court deemed ineligible to run for office because she is in prison for corruption.

Zia and Hasina, who is seeking a third consecutive term, have been in and out of power — and prison — for decades.

In Zia’s absence, opposition parties have formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer and former member of Hasina’s Awami League party.

By the time polls opened at 8 a.m., about 80 people had lined up to vote at a polling station in the Uttara Model Town section of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. Polling workers appointed by candidates showed Election Commission officials empty ballot boxes before the first paper ballot was cast. Awami League supporters had set up help desks on the street outside the polling station for voters to find their registration serial numbers.

Local media including the country’s leading Bengali-language daily, Prothom Alo, said up to 10 people had been killed Sunday in clashes between rival partisans and police in six districts across the country. Police officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The Associated Press received more than 50 calls from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside polling booths.

“Some stray incidents have happened. We have asked our officials to deal with them,” K.M. Nurul Huda, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner, said as he cast his vote in Dhaka.

The election campaign was marred by the arrests and jailing of what the opposition says are thousands of Hasina opponents, including six candidates for Parliament. At least a dozen people were killed in campaign-related clashes.

“Hasina’s use of the state machinery to subjugate the opposition virtually ensures her electoral victory,” said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, a South Asia analyst for the New York-based Eurasia Group.

Both sides are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2014, when Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted elections and voter turnout in the South Asian nation of 160 million people was only 22 percent. More than half of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested. The Awami League’s landslide victory was met by violence that left at least 22 people dead.

In this election, some 104 million people were eligible to vote, including many young, first-time voters.

While rights groups have sounded the alarms about the erosion of Bangladesh’s democracy, Hasina has promoted a different narrative, highlighting an ambitious economic agenda that has propelled Bangladesh past larger neighbors Pakistan and India by some development measures.

Voters “will give us another opportunity to serve them so that we can maintain our upward trend of development, and take Bangladesh forward as a developing country,” Hasina said after casting her ballot along with her daughter and sister in Dhaka.

Walking with a cane, Hossain cast his vote near his home in Dhaka, saying that he was receiving complaints about vote-tampering and intimidation from various parts of the country.

The more than 40,000 polling stations closed at 4 p.m., and counting was to being soon afterward.

At a polling station in the ancient city of Panam Nagar, just outside Dhaka, some 1,600 people cast their ballots as voting came to an end.

One of the voters, 70-year-old Haji Abdul Malek Mia, said he wanted to see someone in power who would offer development. “Whoever is doing development, he should be there,” he said.

Hasina has expressed great confidence in the outcome, already inviting foreign journalists and election observers to her official residence on Monday, by which time the results are expected to be known.

About 600,000 security officials, including army and paramilitary forces, have been deployed across the country in a bid to contain violence in Bangladesh’s 11th general election. Bangladesh’s telecommunications regulator shut down mobile internet services nationwide to prevent possible protests from organizing.

The normally traffic-clogged streets of the capital were largely empty because of a ban on vehicles for everyone except election observers and journalists. Many residents of Dhaka had left days earlier to vote in their hometowns.

At one polling station, Istiaq Ahmed, a doctor in Dhaka, said it was critical that people “select the right government to maintain the development and enrich our country further.”

Sultana Rajia Rotna said she went out to vote after hearing that the streets of Dhaka were peaceful.

“I think the country has already developed much and it will be developed more,” she said in Bengali. “That’s why I’m here casting my vote.”

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