Bangladesh’s ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set for a decisive victory over the Opposition alliance Sunday night, hours after the counting of votes began. Seven hours into the counting, Hasina looks set to return with a landslide for an unprecedented third consecutive term.
Earlier in the evening, the Opposition had rejected the results as “farcical”, and called for fresh elections under a neutral caretaker government. Voting at the end of the bitterly-contested campaign for the country’s 11th parliamentary election was marred by multiple reports of rigging and intimidation. At least 18 people were killed in election-related violence across Bangladesh Sunday, and about 200 were injured.
Just before midnight India time, according to results declared by the Election Commission, Hasina’s Awami League had won 51 seats, while the Opposition Jatiya Oikya Front had got 3 seats. Hasina herself won with an astounding margin at the Gopalganj-3 seat — she got 2,29,539 votes, while the BNP’s S M Jilani got only 123. The Islami Andolan Bangladesh’s Md Maruf Sheikh got 71 votes, and others 14.
According to trends broadcast by the Bangladeshi media, the Awami League coalition was leading on 212 seats, and the Jatiyo Oikya Front, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — whose leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, is in jail after being convicted of corruption early this year — was leading on just 4. The Jatiya Party, led by the former President, Gen H M Ershad, was leading on 12 seats.
Jatiyo Oikya Front chief Kamal Hossain said the elections were “farcical”, demanded that they be cancelled, and called for a fresh vote “as soon as possible”. He alleged massive vote rigging, and said the election had been “robbed” — a “vote dakaati”.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir described the election as a “mockery”, in which, he alleged, leaders of the ruling party and the police had worked together. “This is the death of democracy,” he said. Votes were cast from 8 am to 4 pm. Unlike the practice in India, counting of votes began immediately after polls closed. Ballot papers were used, but electronic voting machines (EVMs) were employed in six constituencies as a pilot project. Complete results were expected by Monday morning.
What’s in it for India?
For New Delhi, a victory for the Awami League will be good news, since it has made significant investments in relations with Bangladesh over the last 10 years. India’s relationship with the BNP-Jamaat alliance government during 2001-06 was not positive.
Elections took place for 299 out of 300 seats in Parliament. The Awami League has 234 seats in the outgoing House. The total number of voters is 10.4 crore, but no figures for voter turnouts were available until press time Sunday night.
This was the first time since 2008 that the two major parties, Awami League and BNP, contested the elections. In 2014, the main Opposition BNP boycotted the elections, and 153 out of 300 candidates were elected without a contest. This time too, Opposition candidates, almost all from the Jatiyo Oikya Front, have boycotted elections in at least 43 constituencies. Last time, the Awami League won 243 seats out of 300, and they were looking to improve their tally Sunday night.
The ruling coalition went into the polls on the plank of Hasina’s track record of “development”, hoping people will favour the boat (the Awami League’s election symbol) over the Opposition’s paddy sheaf. The Jatiya Oikya Front (National United Front) was, on the other hand, hopeful that anti-incumbency would catch up with Hasina, and pave the way for the release of Zia from prison.
While many in the Awami League were confident of victory, there was also concern that the credibility of the polls could be challenged if the security situation worsened. Despite the deployment of over 6 lakh security personnel, including several thousand soldiers and paramilitary border guards, at least 18 people were killed in election-related violence in Noakhali, Rangamati, Chattogram, Cumilla, Rajshahi, Natore,Tangail, Narsingdi, Bogura, Brahmanbaria, Gazipur, Sylhet and Cox’s Bazar districts on Sunday, Bangladesh media reports said.
Eight of the victims were said to be leaders and activists of the ruling Awami League, while one was a leader of the Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal, the youth wing of the BNP. Dhaka remained relatively peaceful. The Indian Express visited a half dozen polling stations in the capital during the day, where it could not find any polling agents from the main Opposition party. Agents from all political parties are generally required to be present at the polling centres.
The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English daily, and Prothom Alo, the largest Bengali daily, also reported the absence of polling agents at booths across Dhaka. Election Commissioners Mahbub Talukder and Rafiqul Islam, too, said they had seen no polling agents from the major Opposition alliance while casting their votes at two separate centres. Chief Election Commissioner K M Nurul Huda, however, differed with his fellow Election Commissioners. This has been the norm over the last few weeks; Huda and Talukder, in particular, have disagreed publicly on the conduct of the elections in a free and fair manner.
“If BNP agents do not come to the centres, then how can they be seen?” CEC Huda asked Sunday after it was alleged that the Opposition’s polling agents were not allowed to enter the centres. “It is their choice. If they do not come, how will they be seen?”
The BNP told the Election Commission that its polling agents had been obstructed at 221 constituencies. “Our polling agents are being intimidated and obstructed while entering voting stations. In some cases, they are being driven out from the polling stations or being arrested,” BNP Joint Secretary General Moazzem Hossain Alal, who led the party’s delegation to the EC, told reporters.
In Dhaka, roads were empty, shops were closed, and mobile Internet services were shut down. “It looks like Eid. No vehicles on the roads, all shops except sweet shops shut,” Usman, a Bangladeshi driver, said.
At the Tejgaon Government Girls’ High School in Dhaka-12 constituency, Mobashira Chowdhury, in her 20s, was excited to cast her vote for the first time. “It’s a very festive feel today. I thought there would be some tension but this place has become a good meeting ground for many friends,” she told The Indian Express after voting along with her friends. She happily announced she had voted for the Awami League’s Assaduzzaman Khan, the country’s Home Minister.
At most places across the city, Awami League posters overwhelmingly outnumbered those of the BNP, reflecting the power dynamic in the elections. The head of the three-member election observers’ team from India said that there was “meticulous planning” as far as the Bangladesh Election Commission was concerned. “We have visited a number of polling stations and as far as the perception goes there was calm, serene ambience in the polling stations,” Aariz Aftab, Chief Electoral Officer, West Bengal, told reporters. He said “a lot of gaiety was visible”. “We definitely feel that there has been meticulous planning as far as the Bangladesh Election Commission is concerned,” he said.