By Krishna N. Das, Zeba Siddiqui and Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) – Clashes between supporters of Bangladesh’s ruling party and its opponents killed at least four people and wounded nearly a dozen on Sunday, a government official and police said, as the country voted in a general election marred by claims of vote rigging.
Reuters reporters across the country of 165 million people saw sparse turnout at polling booths in the first fully competitive general election in a decade widely expected to be won by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, giving her a third straight term in office.
Mobile internet was blocked and the streets of the capital were largely deserted as many had left to vote in their home towns. Others were seen trickling into polling booths, where posters bearing the ruling Awami League’s “boat” symbol far outnumbered those of the opposition.
Mahbub Talukdar, one of the five election commissioners who stirred a controversy last week by saying there was no level-playing field for the parties, told Reuters he did not see any opposition polling agents near the Dhaka booth where he voted, suggesting they had been kept away.
“I am receiving similar complaints from across the country on phone, but what can I do alone?” he said.
A spokesman for the Election Commission said it would act on any written complaints about the lack of opposition presence at polling centres.
The deadly clashes in the southeast of the Muslim-majority country broke out between workers of the Awami League and its opponents, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. At least one of the victims was attacked by a machete-carrying group, police said.
Alleging vote manipulation, at least three candidates fighting against the Awami League withdrew from the contest in Khulna, a divisional headquarters around 300 km (186 miles) southwest of Dhaka.
Rasel, a 34-year-old voter in the southeastern district of Chittagong, said he saw police and some Awami League workers he knew stopping people from entering one polling centre.
“They told me that ‘voting is going on nicely, you don’t need to go inside’. If you try to enter, you will be in trouble’,” Rasel, who declined to give his second name fearing reprisals, told Reuters by phone.
“The ruling party people were standing outside the polling booth. One I know for sure is an Awami League person. If I forcefully tried to enter, they would have beaten me.”
The Election Commission could not immediately be reached for comment on the alleged Chittagong incident.
The Awami League said opposition supporters were wrongly accusing the party.
“Bangladesh TV channels showing peaceful elections, few isolated incidents,” Hasina’s son and Awami League member Sajeeb Wazed said on Twitter. “Yet opposition increase false allegations of irregularities. Trying controversy as opinion polls show landslide for governing party.”
The BNP boycotted the last election in 2014 claiming it wouldn’t be free and fair. The party has been hobbled by the absence of Khaleda, 74, who has been in jail since February on corruption charges which she says are politically motivated.
Hasina and Khaleda have alternated in power for most of the last three decades and this is the first election the BNP has contested without its leader.
It stitched together the National Unity Front alliance with smaller parties, but has alleged its supporters and candidates faced attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests, at the hands of ruling party activists during campaigning. Some BNP leaders and a European diplomat said they feared the election would be rigged.
Hasina’s party dismissed the accusations, saying the opposition has been making “one false allegation after another for months prior to election as polls show a landslide victory” for the ruling party.
“I believe that people will cast their votes in favour of Awami League to continue the pace of development,” Hasina told reporters in Dhaka. “The ‘boat’ will surely win. I believe in democracy and I have confidence in the people of my country.”
But opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told reporters a win for his side is “inevitable if the election is free and fair”.
Hasina has already invited foreign journalists and poll observers to her official residence on Monday, by which time the election result will be known.
Under Hasina, the country’s $280 billion economy grew 7.8 percent in the 2017/18 financial year that ended on June 30, compared with 5.1 percent when Hasina took over in 2008/09.
Over the same period, annual sales of its economic mainstay, the garment industry, nearly tripled, with garment exports worth $30.6 billion in 2017/18, making up 83.5 percent of total exports. One of Hasina’s top jobs if she retains power will be to address demands by garment workers for a higher minimum wage.
At a polling booth set up in a high school in old Dhaka on Sunday, some were afraid to comment on the polls, describing an atmosphere of fear.
A middle-aged businessman who declined to be named said: “I am here to vote, but my family says, ‘what’s the point?’ The ruling party will come back in power in any case.”
Hasina has been praised internationally for providing refuge to Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, but her government is accused of suppressing dissent and jailing critics.
She has faced accusations in the West of increasing authoritarianism. Her son, Wazed, told Reuters on Saturday Hasina regarded such accusations as a “badge of honour”.
“This is an important election, but the condition is not peaceful in the country,” said Monir, a teacher at a madrassa. “The opposition has not been able to exercise its responsibilities properly. They are afraid.”
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul, Serajul Quadir, Rafifqur Rahman and Mohammed Ponir in Dhaka; Enamul Haque in Khulna; Hasibur Rahman in Bogra; Nazimuddin Shyamol in Chitagong; Nurul Islam is Cox’s Bazar; Editing by Nick Macfie)