Bangladesh elections: Deadly clashes mar vote

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina casts her vote in the morning during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 30, 2018.Image copyright

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PM Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, casts her ballot on Sunday

At least two people have been killed in clashes in Bangladesh as the country votes in a general election.

Some 600,000 security personnel have been deployed for the poll, with the build-up marred by violence.

The authorities ordered the shut-down of high speed internet until after the vote to prevent the spread of “rumours” that might spark unrest.

The current PM, Sheikh Hasina, is tipped to win a third straight term. Her main rival is in jail.

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Of the two people who died in the clashes, one was from the opposition while the other was an activist from Ms Hasina’s Awami League (AL).

Minutes before polls opened, a BBC correspondent saw filled ballot boxes at a polling centre in the port city of Chittagong. The presiding officer declined to comment.

Only ruling party polling agents were present at that and several other polling centres in the second largest city of the country.

Why is this election important?

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority nation of more than 160 million people and faces issues ranging from possibly devastating climate change, Islamist militancy, endemic poverty and corruption.

The country has recently been in the international spotlight as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled there from neighbouring Myanmar.

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The lead-up to the election saw violence between rival supporters and a crackdown on dissent by a government that critics say has only grown more authoritarian during its 10 years in power.

Who are the contenders?

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) has run Bangladesh since 2009.

Her long-term rival, Khaleda Zia, was sent to prison on corruption charges earlier this year, in a case which she claimed was politically motivated.

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Khaleda Zia is currently serving 17 years for two corruption convictions

She was barred from contesting in this year’s election, on account of her recent convictions.

In Ms Zia’s absence, former AL minister and Hasina ally Kamal Hossain leads the main opposition grouping, the Jatiya Oikya Front, which includes her Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

However, the 81-year-old lawyer, who drew up the country’s constitution, is not standing in the election, raising questions as to who would take power should the opposition win.

Visible disparity on the ground

Yogita Limaye, BBC News, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Schools and colleges across Bangladesh have been turned into polling booths for the day. Even before the election opened at 8am local time, people had begun to line up to cast their vote.

Although there was a large number of men, I saw very few women coming out, at least in the first few hours.

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There were also a lot of volunteers from the ruling Awami League party at the booth, wearing white caps with the local candidate’s face on it. I couldn’t see any supporters of the opposition parties.

This disparity is visible on the streets of Dhaka as well, which are lined with rows and rows of posters of ruling party candidates. It’s very hard to spot any campaign material from the opposition.

On the last day of canvassing, while there were big street marches held by supporters of Awami League, there was very little happening on the opposition side, just a few, small door to door campaigns.

They say this is because they weren’t allowed to hold big political rallies, at least in the city of Dhaka. They’ve accused the election commission of bias, and say the police have been arbitrarily arresting and detaining opposition party members and supporters.

When I asked Prime Minister Hasina about these allegations, she said they were not true.

Will the polls be fair?

Many activists, observers and the opposition party say they won’t be.

And an opposition alliance led by the BNP argues that if the vote were indeed free and fair, the Awami League would not be able to win a majority.

Human Rights Watch says that the government has embarked on a campaign of intimidation before the vote.

“Members and supporters of the main opposition parties have been arrested, killed, even disappeared, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections,” the group’s Asia director Brad Adams said.

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Some 600,000 security personnel have been deployed across Bangladesh ahead of the poll

The BNP says that hundreds of thousands of cases have been filed by police against its members and activists in the last year.

The government has denied it is targeting the opposition.

Ms Hasina told the BBC on Friday: “On the one hand, they are placing allegations, on the other hand, they are attacking our party workers, leaders. That is the tragedy in this country. They are not getting people’s support.”

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