Updated at 10:43 a.m. ET on 2018-12-30
At least 16 people died in political violence across Bangladesh late Saturday and Sunday, police said, and dozens of opposition candidates quit the race alleging it had been rigged.
The uptick in violence followed a weeks-long campaign tainted by reports of deadly violence and intimidation. But the nation’s foreign ministry described the process as relatively peaceful.
“Compared to previous general elections that witnessed extreme violence and arson, so far (till morning, 30 December 2018) [this] election campaigns have witnessed significantly low incidents of violence,” said a ministry statement issued Sunday.
“The 11th parliament election is being held in a free, fair, festive and peaceful manner in full exercise of the people’s voting rights despite biased speculations by many quarters,” it said.
After the close of voting, Election Commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed announced that voting had been suspended at 22 out of 40,000 polling centers across the country due to violence.
“The election commission has already instructed the police to investigate each of the violent incidents and take legal actions," he said.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh Nationalist Party candidate Salahuddin Ahmed was stabbed when he went to vote at around 9:30 a.m. at Shyampur Model School and College polling center, according to his son, who said more than a dozen others were injured in the incident.
But police characterized it differently.
"There was no problem with him at the center. Rather he came to the center and misbehaved with the presiding officer and the police,” Kadamtali Police Station officer-in-charge Abdul Jalil told BenarNews.
More than 100 opposition candidates pulled out of the race at midday, because the ruling party had rigged ballots, opposition leader Kamal Hossain told a press conference late Sunday.
“When the entire nation was prepared to cast votes in national elections on the 30th of December, then we got information from several constituencies across the country that, in coordination with election officials, some perpetrators stamped ballot for the Boat and filled up ballot boxes last night,” he said, referring to the Awami League logo.
“We have received news of these types of vote robbery from almost all constituencies. More than a hundred candidates from different parties have walked out. Therefore we call on the Election Commission to scrap this election right now. We reject the so-called result of this election and demand a new election under a nonpartisan government.”
By nightfall Sunday, 16 people had been reported killed over a 24-hour period, in 12 different districts of the country, local police in those districts confirmed to BenarNews. The dead were from both parties, they said.
Most of those killed were beaten to death in street clashes, but one man was shot to death as police fired on people trying to steal ballots, according to eyewitnesses.
In Comilla district, adjacent to Dhaka, 38-year-old Mujibur Rahman was shot as he went to vote at primary school, and later died in hospital. Another man was shot but not fatally.
“We went to vote in the morning. At that time a group of hooligans came to the polling station and tried to take away the ballots. There was a clash between BNP and Awami followers and police opened fire. At that time Mujibur Rahman and Mizanur Rahman got shot,” she said.
After she cast her vote Sunday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies for “clandestine attacks.”
“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 said.
Up to 104.2 million voters were eligible to cast ballots for 299 parliamentary seats in the country’s 11th general election. Turnout was light Sunday, as voters queued in chilly weather amid a heavy security presence, some 50,000 soldiers deployed nationwide.
In its statement, the foreign ministry was responding to sharp criticism from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a Thailand-based group that had dropped its plan to monitor the elections due to “significant delays” in the accreditation process.
On Saturday the group said the government had launched “a crackdown on civil society, the opposition, and the media, undermining any semblance of a democratic process.”
“The information on the electoral violence provided by ANFREL ignores the fact that, these have arisen mainly out of intra-party rivalries within BNP itself,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shot back, noting that “pre-election violence in previous elections caused death of 90 individuals (average) whereas the 11th parliament election has seen much less deaths and violence.”
According to ANFREL, a total of five people were killed and 2682 injured in election-related violence through Dec. 29.
Hundreds of people died during the election period five years ago, when the BNP and its coalition partners stayed out of the election to protest the ruling party’s refusal to cede the reins of government to a caretaker administration during the voting season.
Violence before, during, and after the turbulent election killed at least 400 people, including voters, party activists, election officials and security personnel, according to the U.S. Institute for Peace’s Center for Applied Research on Conflict.