Voters cast ballots in a Bangladesh election marred by boycotts Loop Jamaica

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Voters in Bangladesh cast ballots Sunday in a parliamentary election fraught with violence and a boycott from the main opposition party, paving the way for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League to seize a fourth consecutive term.

Days of violence including at least 18 arson attacks preceded the vote but the election day passed relatively calm. One hour before the voting closed, turnout was only 27.15 per cent, said the Election Commission.

Security incidents, including four deaths in an arson attack on a passenger train on Friday, have intensified tensions ahead of the election that was shunned by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allied groups.

Authorities blamed much of the violence on the BNP, accusing it of seeking to sabotage the election. On Saturday, detectives arrested seven men belonging to the BNP and its youth wing for their alleged involvement in the train attack. The opposition party denied any role in the incident.

On Sunday, a supporter of a candidate from the ruling Awami League was stabbed to death in Munshiganj district near Dhaka, officials said. Police did not comment immediately.

A victory for the 76-year-old Hasina, the country’s longest-serving leader and one of its most consequential, would come with a deeply contentious political landscape. The vote, like previous elections, has been defined by the bitter rivalry between Hasina’s Awami League and BNP, led by former premier Khaleda Zia, who is ailing and under house arrest on corruption charges, which her supporters claim are politically motivated.

The two women ran the country alternatively for many years, cementing a feud that has since polarized Bangladesh’s politics and fuelled violence around elections. This year’s vote raised questions over its credibility when there are no major challengers to take on the incumbent.

Badshah Mia, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka, said he wouldn’t vote given the limited choices, adding that the atmosphere didn’t exude that of “a fair election.”

Sakibul Hasan Chowdhury, a businessman, felt the same. “There is no opposition and no candidate of my choice. So how would I benefit from voting?”

A small business owner, Habibur Rahman, said he was voting for the ruling party candidate in his constituency but added that there didn’t seem to be much of a turnout.

Critics and rights groups say the vote follows a troubling pattern, where the past two elections held under Hasina were sullied by allegations of vote-rigging — which authorities have denied — and another boycott by opposition parties.

The government has rejected a monthslong demand by the BNP to have a neutral caretaker government administer Sunday’s vote.

The government has defended the election, saying 27 parties and 404 independent candidates are participating. But with scores of candidates from the Awami League running as independents and mostly smaller opposition parties in the race, analysts say Hasina’s win is near inevitable.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre, said none of those contesting would be able to mount much of a challenge to Hasina’s party. “The outcome is all but guaranteed, and that is that the Awami League will return (to power) again,” he said, noting that “Bangladesh’s democracy will be in an extremely precarious state once the election is done.”

The vote has also been called into question by accusations of a sweeping crackdown against the BNP. The party says about 20,000 of its members were jailed ahead of the vote on trumped-up charges. The government disputed the figures and denied that arrests were made due to political leanings, saying the numbers of those arrested were between 2,000-3,000. The country’s law minister in an interview with BBC said 10,000 were likely arrested.

Abdul Moyeen Khan, a former minister and BNP leader, said the spate of arrests forced him and scores of other party members to go into hiding for weeks until candidacy nominations were halted. “It was the only way we could ensure our safety and carry on raising our voice (against the government)” he said.

“We are not boycotting an election — what we are boycotting is a fake and one-sided election that this government is carrying out,” Khan added.

Hasina is credited with transforming the economy of a young nation born out of war and making its garment sector one of the world’s most competitive. Her supporters say she has staved off military coups and neutralized the threat of Islamic militancy. And internationally, she’s helped raise Bangladesh’s profile as a nation capable of doing business and maintaining diplomatic ties with countries often at odds with each other, like India and China.

Yet her critics say her rise has risked turning Bangladesh into becoming a one-party state where democracy is under threat, as emboldened government agencies increasingly use oppressive tools to mute critics, shrink press freedoms and restrict civil society.

The global economic slowdown is also being felt in Bangladesh, exposing cracks in its economy that have triggered labour unrest and dissatisfaction with the government.

After casting her ballot, Hasina dismissed concerns over the legitimacy of the vote, telling reporters she was accountable to the people and whether they accepted the election or not was what mattered to her.

“I’m trying my best to ensure that democracy should continue in this country,” Hasina added. “Without democracy, you cannot make any development.”