Thousands of protesters firebombed polling stations and stole ballot papers as deadly violence flared across Bangladesh yesterday during a walkover election boycotted by the opposition.
Police said at least 13 people had been killed and more than 200 polling stations were set on fire or trashed by mobs in a bid by the opposition to wreck the one-sided contest.
Two of those killed were beaten to death while guarding polling stations in northern districts, which bore the brunt of the violence.
“We’ve seen thousands of protestors attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs,” Bogra district police chief Syed Abu Sayem said.
“The situation is extremely volatile,” he added, after describing how thousands of ballot papers had been ceremoniously set on fire.
Most of the other victims were opposition activists who were shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries from a Molotov cocktail attack on his truck.
“We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs,” Parbatipur police chief Mokbul Hossain said. “It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons.”
In the capital, police confirmed at least two gasoline bomb attacks on Dhaka polling stations.
Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after about 150 people had been killed in the buildup, but they failed to stem the bloodshed.
The ruling Awami League has accused the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of orchestrating the violence and has kept its leader under de facto house arrest.
With the opposition trying to enforce a general strike as part of a strategy to wreck the polls, officials acknowledged the turnout was significantly lower than usual.
“The turnout was low, partly due to the boycott by many parties,” election commission head Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad said, without immediately giving a figure.
Polls closed at 4pm after eight hours of voting and the final results were expected in the early hours of this morning.
The outcome of the contest is not in doubt as voting is taking place in only 147 of the 300 parliamentary constituencies. Awami League candidates or allies have a clear run in the remaining 153.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government says it had to hold the vote after parliament’s five-year term expired.
The BNP, whose leader Khaleda Zia has been confined to her home, said the vote was a joke.
“The country has rejected these farcical elections, which were meaningless, laughable and universally unacceptable,” BNP deputy leader Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said.
Those who did vote showed little enthusiasm.
“I don’t really want to vote as I don’t think it’s a proper election with only the ruling party candidates participating, but I am scared about what might happen if I don’t as the candidates might think I am anti-Awami League,” Anwar Hossain said outside a polling station in Dhaka’s Azimpur neighborhood.
Shopkeeper Niyamat Ullah said it was a pointless exercise.
“I am not going to vote,” Ullah said. “What kind of election is it when there’s only a handful of voters at the polling center and the two candidates are from the same party?”