Polls opened on Sunday in Bangladesh for a parliamentary election with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina nearly guaranteed a fourth consecutive term in office, in a vote that has been marred by a widespread crackdown on the opposition.
Security remained tight and the mood tense across the country of 170 million people as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition, which has boycotted the election as unfair, pushed for a nationwide strike. With its party in disarray and a large number of its leaders and members imprisoned, it was unclear how successful efforts to organize the strike had been. A fire on a train in the capital, Dhaka, late Thursday, which the police are investigating as arson, killed four people. At least 16 polling stations were set aflame on the eve of the vote, the country’s fire department said.
Ms. Hasina, 76, who cast her vote in Dhaka soon after polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, urged people to come out in large numbers.
On the campaign trail, she has called for political stability and continuity, often by mentioning the country’s violent history of coups and counter-coups, including one that killed her father, Bangladesh’s founding leader, in the 1970s. She has highlighted her efforts to champion economic development, and her secular party’s resistance to the rise of Islamist militancy, as reasons the voters should and will give her another term.
“We have struggled a lot for this voting right: jail, oppression, grenades, bombs,” Ms. Hasina told reporters after casting her vote. “This election will be free and fair.”
But with the results foretold, and the election largely a one-sided affair, there appeared to be little excitement about the vote on the streets. Morning visits to polling centers in Dhaka showed voting off to a slow start. Members of the governing party, the Awami League, milled around outside the voting centers, but voters were a trickle.
“I didn’t go to vote in my hometown because what difference would my vote make?” said Mominul Islam Islam, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka.
With the main opposition boycotting, the competition — still tense, and in many constituencies marked by violence — is largely between members of Ms. Hasina’s own party.
After winning a competitive election held under a neutral caretaker government in 2009, Ms. Hasina has set out to turn Bangladesh into a one-party state, analysts and critics say. She changed the Constitution to make illegal the practice of holding elections under neutral administration, and won two additional terms — in 2014 and 2018 — in votes marked by opposition boycotts and irregularities.
Ms. Hasina first moved to crush the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, effectively banning its political work and prosecuting several of its senior leaders for violence and treason during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. More recently, her efforts have focused on the B.N.P., the main opposition party, which has by now been so gutted that it retains little mobilizing capacity. Its leaders who are not already in jail are bogged down with endless court appointments.
During much of the past 15 years, Ms. Hasina’s second time in power after a five-year term ending in 2001, an economic success story took attention away from her autocratic turn.
On the back of investments in the garment industry, Bangladesh experienced such impressive growth that average income levels at one point surpassed India’s. The country also saw major improvements in education, health, female participation in the labor force and preparedness against climate disasters.
But as Ms. Hasina prepared to seek a fourth consecutive term, the sheen was coming off the economic success story, with the population struggling with rising prices.
The successive blows of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which pushed up fuel and food prices, have exposed Bangladesh’s overreliance on one industry. The country’s foreign reserves have been shrinking, forcing it to seek emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Opposition leaders tried to leverage public anger over the economy, holding their first major rallies in years, prompting Ms. Hasina to intensify the crackdown. The B.N.P. says more than 20,000 of its members have been arrested since its last major rally in October, which faced police batons and tear gas.