Bangladesh’s ruling coalition was heading toward a big victory late Wednesday in the country’ s first mayoral elections contested along party lines since 2008, despite reports of violence, voter intimidation and ballot-rigging.
At least one person was reported killed in poll-related violence as Bangladesh staged municipal elections in 234 towns and cities across the country.
By around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (local time), the Awami League, the main party in a governing alliance, had won 155 posts out of 234 mayoral seats. Its chief rival in the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had won only 12 mayoral contests, according to a report by ATN News, a private TV station.
More than 7.1 million voters were expected to turn out to elect candidates for 2,220 different offices spread across 234 municipalities.
Official voter-turnout numbers were not immediately available, but large numbers of women were seen among the people who lined up to vote in mayoral and other municipal elections. The polls were open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Kazi Rakib Uddin Ahmad, the country’s chief election commissioner, on Wednesday rejected accusations from BNP officials that the municipal polls were “a farce,” saying they were largely free and fair.
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, an organizing secretary for the Awami League, told BenarNews that the BNP was making such allegations because the opposition party feared certain defeat.
After polls closed, the BNP held a news conference during which it aired the allegations.
“Our candidates and agents were beaten up by the ruling party leaders and activists at 157 municipalities. The government has used all state institutions to stage a farcical poll. No fair election is possible under Awami League,” BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told reporters.
As many as 660 candidates from 20 registered parties and 285 independent candidates were contesting the mayoral races. But at least 24 candidates for mayor, including 11 affiliated with the BNP and two affiliated with the ruling Awami League and Jatiya Party, pulled out of the races on election day, citing a range of voting irregularities.
A test for Awami
According to analysts, the first elections in seven years, in which both the Awami League and BNP directly fielded candidates for mayoral contests specifically, represented a test for the ruling party.
“In my opinion, the election commission has tried to hold fair polls. The Awami League has also shown … some restraint, though sporadic violence occurred in some [polling] centers,” professor Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and researcher, told BenarNews.
“Otherwise, the election could have been like the Jan. 5  general election that was largely rigged in favor of the Awami League,” he added.
Widespread irregularities reported
However, out of a total of 3,555 polling stations nationwide, the BNP lodged formal complaints with the election commission about alleged irregularities at 60 sites.
Party officials alleged that there were cases of voter intimation and “seal stamping” – by which partisan activists forced their way into a polling site, snatched ballots and stamped their candidates’ official seal on those voting papers – Chief Election Commissioner Ahmad told reporters Wednesday night.
As a result of violent incidents, voting in the Madhabdi municipality in Narsingdi district, near Dhaka, had to be cancelled, he said, adding that the commission would investigate the BNP’s allegations.
“This means that the election commission and the local administration have been trying to ensure a fair poll,” professor Namul Ahsan Kalimullah, chairman of the National Election Monitoring Council, an NGO that monitors polling in Bangladesh, told reporters after visiting voting sites in the Savar and Dhamrai municipalities of Dhaka district.
Death in Satkania
Nonetheless, one person was killed near the Satkania government offices in Chittagong district, as a gunfight erupted between supporters of rival candidates for a local council election, police said.
The victim was identified as Nurul Amin, 40.
Amin worked as a trader in Cox’s Bazar, friend Abdul Matin told BenarNews.
“He came to Satkania to cast his vote. This is really painful that people coming to vote can die,” he said by phone.
The last municipal elections, in which Bangladesh’s two main rival parties nominated candidates along partisan lines, took place on Dec. 29, 2008.
The Awami League dominated those elections, and would later win the January 2014 general election, which the BNP boycotted and that was marred by reports of voter intimidation, violence, fraud and stuffing of ballot boxes.
“We have been waiting to see a fully participated poll like today’s. I am very happy to cast my votes. People want both the parties to take part in the electoral politics – not the street violence,” Md. Shahidullah, a voter in the northwestern municipality of Naogaon, told BenarNews after casting his ballot.