DHAKA: Police in Bangladesh fired at protesters and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations Sunday during a national election boycotted by the opposition and described as flawed by the international community. At least 18 people were killed in election-related violence.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's refusal to heed opposition demands to step down and appoint a neutral caretaker to oversee the election led to the boycott, undermining the legitimacy of the vote, which is all but certain to return Hasina to power. Opposition activists have staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades in unrest that has left at least 293 people dead since last year.
"We never expected such an election," said Aminul Islam, a resident of the capital, Dhaka, who refused to vote. "For such a situation, both the government and opposition are responsible. They don't want to establish democracy."
Voter turnout appeared low, though official numbers were not immediately known.
In a statement, opposition spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir praised Bangladeshis for "rejecting this meaningless" election.
Vote counting began after polls closed Sunday. Official results are expected Monday morning.
The opposition announced a 48-hour general strike starting Monday morning to demand that the election results be voided.
H.T. Imam, co-chairman of the ruling Awami League's Election Steering Committee, accused the opposition of using violence to create panic among people. "Still, I congratulate people who ignored such threats and came to polling stations," he told reporters.
Police opened fire to stop protesters from seizing a polling center in the country's northern Rangpur district, killing two people, authorities said. In a similar incident in neighboring Nilphamari district, police fired into about two dozen protesters, killing two people.
Police gave no further details, but Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper said the four men who were killed belonged to the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Another 14 people were killed in election-related violence elsewhere, including a polling official who was stabbed to death by suspected opposition activists, police and local media reports said.
Election Commission officials said attackers torched at least 127 school buildings across Bangladesh in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations.
Voting was suspended in at least 390 of the country's 18,208 polling centers because of attacks, the commission said.
The opposition boycott led to 153 of Parliament's 300 elected seats going uncontested.
Hasina's refusal to quit and name an independent caretaker administration, which resulted in the boycott by opposition parties, meant the election was mainly a contest among candidates from the ruling party and its allies. Awami League candidates ran unchallenged in more than half of Bangladesh's 300 parliamentary constituencies.
The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth did not send observers for what they considered a flawed election. U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Washington was disappointed that the major political parties had not reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair and credible elections.
Local television stations showed mostly empty polling stations in the morning, though turnout seemed to improve in the afternoon.
At a polling station in Dhaka's Mirpur district, only 25 out of 24,000 registered voters cast ballots in the first two hours, with polling officials saying fear of violence and absence of any strong opposition had kept people away.
Turnout was better in Nawabganj district in old Dhaka. At one polling center there about an hour before polls closed, 1,039 voters had cast ballots out of the 3,500 listed.
"I've come to exercise my voting right. I've found a competent candidate too," Mohammad Asif, a hotel employee, said after casting his vote in Nawabganj.
Analysts say the political chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country of 160 million and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia.
Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The squabbling between Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia has become a bitter sideshow as both women, who have dominated Bangladeshi politics for two decades, vie to lead the country.
Last weekend, after authorities barred Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, she told police that she would change the name of Gopalganj, Hasina's home district, if she came to power. Her outburst was broadcast live on TV while roads around her home were heavily guarded and sand-laden trucks were parked to obstruct her movement.
A key factor in the latest dispute is the role of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party. The party is a key ally of Zia, and was a coalition partner in the government Zia led from 2001 to 2006.
Opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami say it is a fundamentalist group with no place in a secular country. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, but is governed by largely secular laws based on British common law.