DHAKA : Bangladesh went to the polls on Sunday after violence-plagued campaigning, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking a third straight term in a face-off against an opposition whose leader is in jail on what she says are trumped up charges.
Mobile internet was blocked and the streets of the capital were largely deserted as many had left the city of migrants to vote in their hometowns. Others were seen trickling into polling booths.
Millions of young new voters are registered to vote in the South Asian nation’s first fully competitive general election in a decade. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the last election in 2014 claiming it wouldn’t be free and fair.
Hasina’s Awami League party, which has touted an improved economy and development, is widely expected to win.
The BNP has been hobbled by the absence of its leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 74, who has been in jail since February on corruption charges.
It stitched together the National Unity Front alliance with smaller parties three months ahead of the polls, but has alleged its supporters and candidates faced violent attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests, at the hands of ruling party activists during the campaign. The army is deployed across the country.
Hasina’s party has rubbished the accusations and is brimming with confidence that its economic record will sweep it to election victory.
“The reason people of Bangladesh support the Awami League is very, very simple: development and economic improvement,” Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, told Reuters in the prime minister’s official residence on the eve of the vote.
Annual growth in the Muslim-majority nation of 165 million people rose to 7.8 percent in the 2017/18 financial year that ended on June 30, compared with 5.1 percent when Hasina took over in 2008/09.
“Badge of honour”
Over the same period, annual sales of its economic mainstay, the garment industry, nearly tripled, with garment exports worth $30.6 billion in 2017/18, making up 83.5 percent of total exports. Bangladesh’s garment industry is the world’s second biggest after China. One of Hasina’s top jobs if she retains power will be to address demands by garment workers for a higher minimum wage.
But she has faced accusations of increasing authoritarianism. Wazed told Reuters Hasina regarded such accusations by “Western media” as a “badge of honour”.
At a polling booth set up near a high school in old Dhaka on Sunday, some were afraid to comment on the polls, describing an atmosphere of fear.
“I hope the result will be good for us and boat will win,” said a polling agent, Mohammed Selim Raj, referring to Hasina’s party symbol that represents rural Bangladesh. “Boat is the symbol of our liberation.”
A middle-aged businessman who declined to be named said: “I am here to vote, but my family says, ‘what’s the point?’ The ruling party will come back in power in any case.”
Hasina has been praised internationally for providing refuge to Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, but her government is accused of suppressing dissent and jailing critics.
The United States, which has urged Bangladesh to ensure the vote is free and fair, said opposition party candidates had “borne the brunt of most violence” in recent weeks. “Think before you act violently!” the U.S. embassy said on Twitter. “Your country depends on it.”
The vote count will begin in the evening and news channels are expected to call the result early on Monday. Hasina’s son Wazed said he was so sure of victory he was planning to fly out of the country right after casting his vote.
Hasina and Khaleda have alternated in power for most of the last three decades and this is the first election the BNP has contested without Khaleda.
After intensive efforts by the BNP to get Khaleda out of jail failed, her son, Tarique Rahman, who is wanted in Bangladesh for masterminding a 2004 plot to kill Hasina, appealed to women voters on Facebook.
“This is my appeal to every mother, every woman in Bangladesh: only you can get her reunited with her family through the collective power of each of your votes,” he said.
Women make up nearly half of the country’s 100 million voters.