Bangladesh tightened security Saturday for an election expected to see Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina win a record fourth term but dominated by opposition claims that they have been shackled by a government clampdown.
Authorities have deployed around 600,000 police, army and other security forces ahead of Sunday’s vote, a senior official said, following a deadly campaign of clashes and the arrests of opposition activists.
The forces — which also include the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), navy, border and coast guards and auxiliary police units — will guard some 40,000 election booths across the poor South Asian nation.
“We have ensured the highest level of security in Bangladesh as per the capacity of the country,” Rafiqul Islam of the election commission told AFP.
“We hope there will be a peaceful atmosphere,” he said.
Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator also ordered the country’s mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumors”, that could trigger unrest, a spokesman said.
A heavy police presence was evident on the streets of the capital Dhaka ahead of the polls opening at 8:00 am (0200 GMT) Sunday but residents appeared undeterred.
“Voting is important because as a citizen of Bangladesh it is my duty. I’ll cast my vote for my chosen candidate,” Siam Ahmed told AFP.
Clashes have gripped the Muslim majority country of 165 million in the run-up to the vote, in which the ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are leading their own alliances.
Thirteen people have been killed and thousands injured in skirmishes between supporters of Hasina and activists of the BNP, whose leader Khaleda Zia is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges.
The BNP — which boycotted the 2014 election, handing Hasina an easy victory — says its supporters have been deliberately targeted in a bid to deter them from voting, clearing the prime minister’s path for a new term.
The 71-year-old Hasina has called for voters to back her to further bolster the economy which has shown impressive growth during her decade in power. She has rejected accusations of growing authoritarianism.
The BNP — the main player in an alliance headed by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old Oxford educated lawyer who drew up Bangladesh’s constitution — has accused the election commission of bias during the campaign.
The opposition says more than 14,000 of its activists have been detained since the election was announced on November 8. The BNP said over 1,100 people were rounded up on Friday alone.
The party also alleges that around 12,000 activists were injured in attacks by ruling party followers. The Awami League denies the allegation.
Sixteen international human rights groups released a joint statement Saturday saying the crackdown “compromises the integrity” of the vote.
The United States has raised concerns about the elections while the United Nations called for greater efforts to make the vote fair.
Rafiqul Islam said election authorities were still hopeful the country’s 11th parliamentary polls since independence from Pakistan in 1971 would be credible.
“We’re trying our best to have a free and fair election,” he said.
A spokesman for the RAB, Bangladesh’s elite security force, said Saturday they had arrested eight men for spreading rumours on social media ahead of Sunday’s poll.
Forty-eight people have been detained by the force in 2018 for spreading “false information and mocking” Hasina, the spokesman said.
The election commission has also imposed restrictions on public transport and cars on polling day in an effort to maintain security for a smooth election, said Islam.
Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and now its longest-serving leader, is seeking a third-straight term since winning a landslide in December 2008.
She has been praised for presiding over healthy GDP expansion, with the country set to graduate from a least developed country to a middle income nation, and lauded for opening Bangladesh’s doors to around one million Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar.
But critics accuse her of muzzling free speech and clamping down on dissent, including through a draconian anti-press law toughened this year.