Bangladesh’s election commission will investigate claims of widespread vote-rigging in the country’s election, but has already confirmed a landslide win by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League alliance.
Hasina, who has headed the Awami League since 1981, went into the poll buoyed by a decade of impressive economic growth and a boom in garment exports. The 71-year old had promised supporters she would pull off a landslide victory, and was true to her word.
Her ruling party sealed a third straight term in office after taking 288 of the 300 seats contested in Sunday’s poll, but the result was labeled “farcical” by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies amid charges of fraud and government intimidation. At least 18 people died, making it one of the country’s deadliest elections.
The BNP-led Jatyio Oikkya Front alliance rejected the result midway through vote counting and as many as 57 opposition and independent candidates pulled out while the ballot was still in progress. A British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent saw ballot boxes at a polling center in Chittagong that were full before the voting booths even opened.
Non-government parties won only seven seats and will form the weakest opposition since Bangladesh’s post-Ershad democratic restoration in 1991. Independents won five seats. The Jatyio Oikkya Front alleged that there were “irregularities” in 221 seats, and demanded a re-run.
“Our polling agents are being intimidated and obstructed from entering voting stations. In some cases, they are being driven away from the polling stations or being arrested,” BNP joint secretary-general Moazzem Hossain Alal told reporters.
‘Result should be annulled’
Opposition leader Kamal Hossain called on the Election Commission to void the result. “We are demanding that a fresh election is held under a neutral government as early as possible,” he said.
An Election Commission spokesman told Reuters that the agency would respond if its own inquiries found any evidence of vote-rigging.
“Allegations are coming from across the country and those are under investigation,” SM Asaduzzaman said. “If we get any confirmation from our own channels then measures will be taken as per rules.”
However, the Election Commission has itself been accused of bias by the opposition and it is very unlikely the result will be annulled. “My congratulations to the Awami League,” Helal Uddin Ahmed, secretary of the Election Commission secretariat, said as he read out the results.
Opposition leaders have accused public officials of openly backing Awami League candidates, aided by activists. “Ballots were being stamped with the help of law enforcement agencies and polling and administration officials,” the BNP said in an official complaint.
The English-language Daily Star reported that people in some areas were pressured to cast their votes for “the boat” — the symbol of Mohajot, an Awami League ally. Jamshed Ali, a voter in northeastern Natore, said that Awami League agents had told him how to vote.
Afsana Rimi, a voter in the capital, Dhaka, said in a Facebook post that League agents threw away her ballot paper when she voted for a “sheaf of paddy” — the electoral symbol of the BNP. “I was shaking in anger when they did that in the presence of the presiding officer,” she wrote.
Maruf Ahmed, a voter in Dhaka’s Gulshan district, told Asia Times that he saw supporters of the ruling party stuffing ballot boxes as he went to cast his vote. “I saw it with my own eyes. The police were there but they didn’t do anything. I feel like my vote really doesn’t matter,” he said.
Voters were seen waiting in line for about three hours at one Dhaka polling center, with police allowing only 10 people in at a time and League activists giving priority to their supporters. Tired and discouraged, many people left without casting their vote.
Dr Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, said most electoral centers had no polling agents from the opposition alliance, as they were thrown out by law enforcers or activists from the ruling party.
“People of this country are not fools. They know what type of election had taken place,” he said.
Chief election commissioner Nurul Huda claimed that opposition agents were not seen at poll centers because they did not show up.
“It is their choice. If they don’t come, how will they be seen?” Huda said, adding that the election was held in a fair manner except for one or two isolated incidents.
When journalists asked one of the election commissioners, Mahbub Talukder, whether he had found the poll to be free and fair, he replied: “You better ask your conscience. I don’t want to talk about this.”