DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Bangladesh's governing party won handily in Sunday's parliamentary elections, clinching a third-consecutive term for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even as widespread reports of irregularities, voter intimidation and violence cast the voting into question.
Hasina's party, the Awami League, and its allies officially won 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats that have been called by the Election Commission, with a total of 300 seats up for grabs.
But the opposition swiftly rejected the results, accusing the governing party of tampering with votes and calling for a fresh election. Hasina, 71, is the first leader in Bangladesh's history to win three consecutive terms, but she has increasingly been accused of autocratic behavior.
Opposition leader Kamal Hossain lambasted the "farcical election" on Sunday night as the results streamed in. The Election Commission said it was looking into reports of irregularities.
"News of vote robberies have come from almost all constituencies," Hossain told journalists Sunday night. "We reject the announced result of this election."
Reporters from the prominent Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star said they witnessed ballot stuffing and voter intimidation across the country.
At least 17 people died in election-related violence across the country, according to police, though that was less than in previous voting. But if the opposition were to take to the streets, many fear that deadlier clashes would break out given Bangladesh's history of political violence.
In past elections, the Awami League and the largest opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, carried out brutal campaigns to suppress each others' voters. The country has vacillated between the two parties' rule since democracy was restored in 1991 when a series of military dictatorships came to an end.
Ahead of this election, local and international rights organizations accused the governing party of creating an intimidating atmosphere by arresting and harassing opposition candidates and preventing them from campaigning. A Human Rights Watch report earlier this month described the pre-election atmosphere as "a climate of fear extending from prominent voices in society to ordinary citizens."
Hasina brushed off those accusations ahead of the polls. And the Awami League praised the election when polling stations closed on Sunday.
"This election has proved that a free, fair and neutral election is possible under a partisan government," said H.T. Imam, an adviser to Hasina.
Hasina has been credited with fostering economic and social development that has lifted Bangladesh from one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world to one that outperforms neighbors India and Pakistan in some development measures, including gender equality and economic growth.
During nearly 10 years of Hasina's governance, per capita income has increased by nearly 150 percent, while the share of the population living in extreme poverty has shrunk to about 9 percent from 19 percent, according to the World Bank.
But under Hasina, the government has also become increasingly heavy-handed about dissent. Police have continued to arrest critics without warrants and have detained citizens who disparage her government in Facebook posts or in media interviews.
Allies of Hasina, including the opposition leader Hossain, split with the premier to oppose her in the election, denouncing what they described as her authoritarian tendencies that they warned would harden should she win a third term.
The opposition saw the polls as Bangladesh's last chance to salvage democracy, claiming that the governing party was sacrificing citizens' personal freedoms and liberties in exchange for economic growth. Although the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had a poor human-rights track record when in power, it vowed that it would change its ways, and made delivering good governance a centerpiece of its campaign.
At the very least, democracy advocates critical of both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League had hoped that the opposition would perform better in Sunday's elections to provide a strong check to Hasina's third term. But the opposition only managed to win seven seats in parliament.
The prime minister rejected her critics in an interview in December with The New York Times, claiming that only urban elites were concerned about the right to criticize her government freely or assemble for protests. She added that the opposition was pursuing an anti-government agenda and inciting violence.
"If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights," Hasina said. "I know my country, and I know how to develop my country. My biggest challenge is that no one is left behind."
A Section on 01/01/2019
Print Headline: Bangladesh ruling party's victory disputed