Counting has got under way in Bangladesh after parliamentary elections marred by deadly clashes.
The poll is being seen as a referendum on what critics call Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s increasingly authoritarian rule, amid complaints from ruling party and opposition activists of attacks on supporters and candidates.
Ms Hasina’s main rival is former prime minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whom a court deemed ineligible for the race for office because she is in prison for corruption.
The two women have been in and out of power — and prison — for decades.
In Ms Zia’s absence, opposition parties have formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer and former member of Ms Hasina’s Awami League party.
The election campaign has been marred by the arrests and jailing of what the opposition says are thousands of Hasina opponents, including six candidates for Parliament. At least a dozen people were killed in campaign-related clashes.
Local media said up to 16 people had been killed on Sunday in clashes between opponents and police in six districts across the country.
“Hasina’s use of the state machinery to subjugate the opposition virtually ensures her electoral victory,” said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, a South Asia analyst for New York-based Eurasia Group.
Both sides are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2014, when Ms Zia and the BNP boycotted elections and voter turnout in the South Asian nation of 160 million people was only 22%. More than half of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested. The Awami League’s landslide victory was met by violence that left at least 22 people dead.
This election, some 104 million people are eligible to vote, including many first-time voters.
While rights groups sound the alarms about the erosion of Bangladesh’s democracy, Ms Hasina has promoted a different narrative, highlighting an ambitious economic agenda that has propelled Bangladesh past larger neighbours Pakistan and India by some development measures.
Voters “will give us another opportunity to serve them so that we can maintain our upward trend of development, and take Bangladesh forward as a developing country,” Ms Hasina, who is seeking a third consecutive term, said after casting her ballot along with her daughter and sister in Dhaka.
Walking with a cane, Mr Hossain cast his vote near his home in Dhaka, saying that he was receiving complaints about vote-tampering and intimidation from various parts of the country.
The Associated Press received more than 50 calls on Sunday from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside the polling booths.
Ms Hasina has expressed great confidence in the outcome, already inviting foreign journalists and election observers to her official residence on Monday, by which time the results are expected to be known.
About 600,000 security officials, including army and paramilitary forces, have been deployed across the country in a bid to contain violence in Bangladesh’s 11th general elections. Bangladesh’s telecommunications regulator shut down mobile internet services nationwide to prevent possible protests from being organised.
The normally traffic-clogged streets of the capital were largely empty because of a ban on vehicles for everyone except election observers and journalists. Many residents of Dhaka had left days earlier to vote in their home towns.