Low turnout in Bangladesh election with Sheikh Hasina poised for fifth term as PM

Vote boycotted by main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shows her ballot paper as she casts her vote in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Sunday. AP
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Bangladeshis largely stayed away from the polls in a general election on Sunday that is expected to give Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a fourth straight term after a boycott by the main opposition party.

There were at least 18 arson attacks in the run-up to the vote but the election day passed relatively calmly. Turnout was about 40 per cent, said chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal, compared with more than 80 per cent in the last election in 2018. Initial results are expected early on Monday.

Rights groups have warned of virtual one-party rule by Ms Hasina's Awami League in the South Asian country of 170 million people after the boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and some smaller allies.

The United States and Western nations, key customers of Bangladesh's garment industry, have called for a free and fair election, the 12th since independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Voting was cancelled at seven centres because of irregularities and an Awami League candidate was disqualified for threatening security officials, an election commission official said.

The BNP, boycotting the second of the past three elections, says Ms Hasina's party is trying to legitimise a sham vote. She refused BNP demands to resign and allow a neutral authority to run the election, accusing the opposition of instigating anti-government protests that have rocked Dhaka since late October and killed at least 14 people.

The BNP called a two-day strike nationwide over the weekend and asked people not to vote.

Party leader Abdul Moyeen Khan said the opposition's boycott call was a success.

"The people of the country boycotted the government by not going to the polling booths," he said.

In her latest 15 years in power, Ms Hasina, 76, has been credited with turning around Bangladesh's economy and the key garment industry. But critics accuse her of authoritarianism, human rights violations, crackdowns on free speech and suppression of dissent.

At least four people were killed on Friday in a passenger train fire that the government called arson. Several polling booths, schools and a Buddhist monastery were set ablaze days before the poll.

A person in Munshiganj, south of the capital Dhaka, was hacked to death on Sunday morning, district police chief Mohammad Aslam Khan said, adding it was unclear if the killing was related to political violence.

Police in Chandpur district, about 110km from Dhaka, fired tear gas to disperse BNP supporters who had blocked roads to disrupt voting and threw stones at security forces, said district police chief Saiful Islam.

Supporters of the Awami League and independent candidates clashed in some districts, amid allegations that ruling party cadres were stuffing sealed ballot papers in voting boxes, local media reported.

Bangladesh deployed about 800,000 security forces to guard polling booths and troops were mobilised nationwide to assist in maintaining peace.

Ms Hasina, accompanied by her daughter and other family members, voted at Dhaka's City College minutes after polling began at 8am.

"Bangladesh is a sovereign country and people are my power," Ms Hasina said after voting, adding she hoped her party would win the people's mandate.

She previously served as prime minister from 1996-2001.

"I am trying my best to ensure that democracy should continue in this country."

About 120 million voters were choosing from nearly 2,000 candidates for 300 directly elected parliamentary seats. There were 436 independent candidates, the most since 2001.

The BNP, with its top leaders either in jail or exile, says the Awami League has put up "dummy" candidates as independents to try to make the election look credible, a claim the ruling party denies.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: January 07, 2024, 8:31 PM