Amid torchings and turbulence, Bangladesh goes to the polls
One polling officer killed, over 100 stations set alight
Security personnel are out in force on election day. Picture: Shahadat Hosen
Bangladesh went to the polls for its tenth general election on Sunday amid fatal violence and turbulent scenes nationwide.
At least 100 polling stations have been torched and polling officers attacked, resulting in one death and several serious injuries, as opposition party supporters made a last ditch effort to derail the election.
Attacks on the stations have been ongoing since Friday, staged by supporters of an 18-party alliance which includes the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the hardline Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party.
This alliance has also boycotted the election by refusing to field candidates, making victory a certainty for the ruling Awami League, with more than 150 of its candidates already winning their seats without contest.
The boycott was announced after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected demands to step down and make way for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election. Hasina strongly denied allegations that voting would be rigged under her supervision.
In a statement on Friday, BNP chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia urged people not to vote in what she called a “one-sided brazen farce” and accused the government of effectively placing her under house arrest, with security forces surrounding her home. The government has denied this assertion.
"No one at home and abroad will call this farce a credible election,” she said.
In response, the Awami League has said that it is constitutionally bound to hold the election.
“This government’s tenure expires on January 24 and we must hold polls before then to uphold the constitution,” said Tofael Ahmed, a senior Awami League leader. “People will spontaneously vote in this free, fair and peaceful election which is being supervised by the independent Election Commission.”
More than 400,000 security personnel including 50,000 troops have been deployed across the country and police say they have arrested about 1,200 opposition supporters since January 1. BNP and its allies claim the number is much higher.
Despite the heavy security, many Bangladeshis have said that the fear of violence may well stop them from voting.
Arshad Ali, 55, is a resident of the Satkhira district which has been the scene of many bloody political clashes. “I am still not sure about casting my vote. There are rumors that people who go to voting centers will be attacked and I fear for my life,” he said on Saturday.
In 2006, a similar series of clashes between Awami League and BNP activists led to a military-installed government which ruled for the next two years until the 2008 general election, which saw the Awami League win a two-thirds majority.
Analysts fear the military might once again take over if post-election violence worsens.
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