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January 5, 2014 6:00 am
At least 17 people were killed on Sunday as Bangladeshis voted in a general election marred by violence, arrests and an opposition boycott.
Protesters set fire to more than 70 polling stations and voting was suspended at more than 160 others.
Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), has dismissed as farcical the election called by Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister and head of the governing Awami League.
“No one at home and abroad will legitimise this farce of an election,” Ms Zia said in a statement in Dhaka, the capital, where her supporters say she is effectively under house arrest for boycotting an election she deemed unfair. “The Awami League will emerge from its veneer of legality to its illegal self.”
Ms Hasina is certain of victory because 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats are uncontested and will automatically be won by her party and its allies, after she rejected opposition demands for a neutral caretaker administration to manage the elections.
Many Bangladeshis, including investors in the crucial garment manufacturing sector, have long been frustrated by the intense personal rivalry between the two women, known as the “battling begums”.
Officials from the US, the UN and elsewhere tried and failed to broker a compromise so that an election could be held with the agreement of both sides. More than 130 people have died in pre-election clashes between the security forces and demonstrators, leaving the economy disrupted and the country’s reputation as a functioning democracy in tatters.
Weeks of rolling strikes and street protests called by the BNP have affected the supply lines of the garment business, which makes up most of the country’s exports, and prompted some foreign residents and wealthy Bangladeshis to extend their overseas holidays rather than risk returning home.
In the near-deserted streets of Dhaka, voter turnout in some districts was a feeble 20 per cent by the time the polls closed at 4pm.
“If there was a real election, it would be 70-80 per cent,” said Mohammed Mainu, a leather trader and BNP supporter in the capital’s Lalbagh district. “I didn’t vote. This is a staged election.”
Most of those killed on Sunday around the country were protesters shot by the security forces, according to Daily Star reports from across the country. But other victims have been injured in petrol bomb attacks by supporters of the BNP and its Jamaat-e-Islami allies.
Among the patients admitted to the burns and plastic surgery unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital was Abdullah, a 50-year-old rickshaw driver hired for two days as a paramilitary security guard in Sylhet in northeastern Bangladesh.
Mr Abdullah, the skin of his face and chest burnt and peeling and his eyes swollen shut, was unable to speak, but his brother said he was patrolling a school to be used as a polling station at 4am on Sunday when he was hit by a petrol bomb.
The government insisted it was constitutionally obliged to hold the election this month, but acknowledged that it would not have a full mandate and would need to hold another election, provided it could reach agreement with the BNP and ensure an end to violence that it blames on BNP militants and their allies.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, has urged the government to end its crackdown on the opposition, including arbitrary arrests, and called on the opposition to stop violence by its supporters.
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