Bangladesh prime minister denies accusations of rigged vote

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The day after winning a record fourth term in power, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina trumpeted her accomplishments and dismissed opposition claims that the vote was rigged.

Hasina’s ruling alliance won virtually every parliamentary seat in the general election, according to official results released Monday, giving her a third consecutive term despite opposition allegations of intimidation. Hasina earlier served a single term.

The coalition led by Hasina’s Awami League party won 288 out of 300 seats — 96 per cent — in Sunday’s polls, Election Commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said. The opposition alliance led by prominent lawyer Kamal Hossain won only seven seats.

The opposition rejected the outcome, with Hossain calling the election “farcical” and demanding a new election be held under the authority of a “nonpartisan government.”

But Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda ruled out any revote, saying there were no reports of large irregularities.

“There is no scope to hold the election again,” Huda said. He said the turnout in Sunday’s vote was 80 per cent.

Hasina’s main rival for decades has been former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whom a court deemed ineligible to run for office because she was sentenced to more than two years in prison after being convicted of corruption. Zia’s supporters say the charges were politically motivated.

In Zia’s absence, opposition parties formed a coalition led by Hossain, an 82-year-old former member of Hasina’s Awami League who served as foreign minister under Hasina’s father, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader.

The political opposition and groups including Human Rights Watch say Hasina has become increasingly authoritarian. More than a dozen people were killed in election-related violence Sunday, and the election campaign was dogged by allegations of the arrest and jailing of thousands of Hasina’s opponents.

In a wide-ranging discussion with foreign journalists and election observers at her official residence in Dhaka on Monday, Hasina refused a suggestion that she offer her political foes an olive branch.

“The opposition you see, who are they? The main party, BNP, it was established by a military dictator (Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman) who introduced martial law in this country, there was no constitutional right of the people.

“This military dictator, first they captured power, then they become politicians and formed their own party. And the rigging system and everything, they introduced to this country,” she said.

Hasina dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote.

“I feel that it was a very peaceful election, some incidents took place, some of our Awami League party workers were killed by the opposition. I’m very sorry for that, but I always appreciate our law enforcement agencies, also our people who were working hard to have this election in a peaceful manner,” she said.

The spokesman’s office for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for restraint and encouraged both sides to address complaints peacefully and legally. Its statement Monday condemned violence against candidates and voters as unacceptable.

Dhaka University law professor Asif Nazrul said the election would cause people to “lose their belief in the electoral system in the future. Nobody will believe in the democratic system. This is a very bad signal.”

Bangladesh’s leading newspapers ran banner headlines, some in red, while television stations aired round-the-clock analysis. A headline in the country’s leading English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, read, “Hat-trick for Hasina, BNP found missing in polling; atmosphere festive, tuned only to ruling party,” referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

In an editorial, the newspaper said “this was a one-sided election.”

“The blatant and starkest manifestation of an uneven state of affairs was the absence of polling agents of the opposition … in most, if not almost all, of the polling centres in the country,” it said.

The secretary general of Zia’s party, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, won a seat in a twist victory. Alamgir is a fierce critic of Hasina and spearheaded the formation of the opposition alliance with Hossain at the helm. Alamgir said Sunday he was rejecting any outcome, but it was unknown after his win was declared what he would do now.

In the run-up to the election, activists from both the ruling party and the opposition complained of attacks on supporters and candidates.

The Daily Star said 16 people were killed in 13 districts in election-related violence on Sunday.

The Associated Press received more than 50 calls from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and of being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside polling booths.

While rights groups have sounded alarms about an erosion of Bangladesh’s democracy, Hasina has promoted a different narrative, highlighting an ambitious economic agenda that has propelled Bangladesh past larger neighbours Pakistan and India by some development measures.

“It’s a good opportunity for me to continue the development of the country because economic development is very, very important for our country. What we have done the last 10 years, now people are getting the fruit of this development, also they are getting better lives day by day. And we must be hopeful that in the next tenure, it will improve more,” she said.

Some 104 million people in the Muslim-majority country were eligible to vote, including many young, first-time voters, in Bangladesh’s 11th general election since independence from Pakistan.

Both sides were hoping to avoid a repeat of 2014, when Zia and the BNP boycotted and voter turnout was only 22 per cent. More than half of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested. The Awami League’s landslide victory was met with violence that left at least 22 people dead.

About 600,000 security officials, including army and paramilitary forces, were deployed to counter violence. The telecommunications regulator shut down mobile internet services nationwide to prevent the organizing of protests.

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