At least 12 people were killed in election-day clashes in Bangladesh Sunday, after a bloody campaign overshadowed by a crackdown on the opposition by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is expected to win a historic but controversial fourth term.
Three men were shot by police while eight others died in clashes between activists from the ruling Awami League Party and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), police said.
An auxiliary police member was killed after being attacked by opposition activists armed with guns and sticks, according to officials.
Voting, which ended at 4:00pm (1000 GMT), was held under tight security. Polls have predicted that Hasina will clinch a third-consecutive term and record fourth overall.
Bangladesh’s leader has been lauded for boosting economic growth in the poor South Asian nation during an unbroken decade in power and for welcoming Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.
But critics accuse her of authoritarianism and crippling the opposition — including arch-rival Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges — to cling on to power.
The election campaign was marred by violence between supporters of Hasina’s Awami League and Zia’s BNP.
Some 600,000 security personnel were deployed across the South Asian country, including at 40,000 polling stations.
Authorities ordered mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumours” that could trigger unrest.
The election-day deaths brought to 16 the official police toll for election violence since the ballot was announced on November 8.
Police said they acted “in self-defence” in the southern town of Bashkhali, when they opened fire on opposition supporters who attempted to storm a polling booth, killing one.
In a separate incident another man was shot by police after he tried to steal a ballot box.
– Free and fair? –
Opinion polls show Hasina, who has presided over six percent GDP expansion every year since she won a landslide in 2008, heading for a comfortable victory that would extend her reign as the country’s longest-serving leader.
She needs 151 seats in the first-past-the-post system to control the 300-seat parliament but experts say a victory would be sullied by accusations that she hamstrung her opponents’ campaign and scared people into voting for her.
The opposition says more than 15,000 of its activists have been detained during the weeks-long campaign, crushing its ability to mobilise grassroots support.
“We are getting disturbing reports outside Dhaka that overnight votes have been cast illegally,” said Kamal Hossain, the 82-year-old architect of Bangladesh’s constitution who is helming the opposition coalition.
Presiding officers at polling stations across Dhaka reported a low turnout.
Human Rights Watch and other international groups have decried the crackdown, saying it has created a climate of fear which could prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots.
The United States has raised concerns about the credibility of the Muslim-majority country’s election while the United Nations called for greater efforts to make the vote fair.
Seventeen opposition candidates have been arrested over what they claim are trumped-up charges while another 17 were disqualified from running by courts, which Hasina’s opponents say are government controlled.
“This is not (a) free and fair election. It is more a controlled selection,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named.
– Student protests –
The Bangladeshi leadership has alternated between Hasina and Zia, allies-turned-foes, over the last three decades.
Hasina rejects accusations of creeping authoritarianism but analysts say she mounted the clampdown over fears that young voters were set to hand a victory to the BNP.
Her government was criticised this year for its heavy handling of weeks of massive student protests over the abolition of job quotas and poor safety standards on Bangladesh’s dangerous roads.
Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was gifted victory in the 2014 election when the BNP boycotted the vote claiming it wasn’t free or fair.
Since then, rights groups have accused her administration of stifling freedom of speech through the toughening of a draconian anti-press law and the enforced disappearance of government dissenters.