Voting is underway in Bangladesh’s first contested election in a decade, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina looks to clinch a third consecutive term amid reports of political violence and intimidation in the run-up to polls as well as concerns over whether balloting would be free and fair.
The polls opened at 8 a.m. Sunday (local time), but streets in the capital Dhaka were mostly deserted despite a heavy presence of security personnel at voting centers.
Hasina, the 71-year-old head of the Awami League, cast her vote at Dhaka City College.
“The people of Bangladesh will vote for Boat. We have all felt the trust they have vested in us. Therefore, we must ensure that the credibility of the elections is not questioned,” the prime minister said, referring to her party’s boat symbol.
Her comments were broadcast on Ekkator TV, a local station.
“The opposition is now doing clandestine attacks. They’re making allegations of violence against us across the country while continuing to attack our activists,” she added.
Up to 104.2 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for 299 parliamentary seats in the country’s 11th general election.
The race consists of 1,733 candidates representing 39 registered parties and another 128 running as independents, according to the Election Commission. Only 151 seats are needed to secure victory under Bangladesh’s first-past-the-post electoral format.
Hasina is seeking a record fourth term as prime minister.
She is leading the ruling Grand Alliance coalition against an opposition bloc whose iconic leader, former three-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has been sidelined from the contest.
Zia was disqualified because of her conviction and imprisonment in early 2018 on corruption charges – which she and her supporters said were politically motivated.
A newly formed opposition alliance, the National Unity Front, is spearheaded by Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and is led by Kamal Hossain, an 84-year-old former senior Awami League official and ex-protégé of Hasina’s assassinated father, the first leader of Bangladesh.
“There should be a very decisive victory for the opposition if it's free and fair,” Hossain told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday. “If there is some kind of a decision in favor of the present government, I can assure you that it will not be a free and fair election.
The run-up to Sunday’s polls was marred by reports of deadly violence and intimidation carried out by activists from all sides.
On Saturday, the army chief urged voters to not be afraid to venture out to the polls, saying 50,000 soldiers had been deployed nationwide to safeguard voting centers.
“I am telling the voters to go to the polling centers without any fear. You cast your votes; we will be around ... We are trying our best so that no one can create any anarchy,” Gen. Aziz Ahmed told reporters, according to the Daily Star.
“We want a good election,” he said. “[W]e will be alert so that no one can spread fear.”
After casting his vote at northern Thakurgaon district BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir predicted an opposition victory.
“Until now, the poll environment is peaceful. I hope polls will end peacefully,” he told reporters. “If polls remain peaceful, then the BNP will win by a ‘vote revolution’ through the ballots.”