Bangladesh Local Elections Marred by Vote-Rigging Allegations : WSJ

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Pro-government candidates swept to victory in city council elections that took on added significance with the main opposition party fielding candidates after boycotting national elections last year.

In elections marred by allegations of irregularities, vote-rigging and intimidation of voters and the press, Awami League candidates Annisul Huq and Sayeed Khokon were elected mayor of Dhaka North and Dhaka South councils respectively. Nasir Uddin, another ruling party-backed candidate, won the race for mayor of Chittagong city, election officials said Wednesday.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been waging often-violent street protests to unseat the government, nominated candidates to challenge the Awami League in Dhaka and Chittagong—Bangladesh’s biggest cities. However, on Tuesday, as balloting was going on, the BNP announced it was withdrawing from the elections, citing polling irregularities. At a news conference, opposition-backed candidates said ruling-party activists had “taken control of polling centers” and had forced out opposition polling agents.

Election officials said they had witnessed no irregularities, and Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad,the chief election commissioner, said the election had been “largely free and fair.”

Awami League officials denied accusations of intimidation and said the BNP was trying to undermine the elections.

However, in both Dhaka and Chittagong, independent election observers reported intimidation, multiple voting and ballot-box stuffing at some polling stations.

The opposition’s withdrawal dashed hopes that Bangladesh would move away from thefractious politics and violence that have claimed more than 100 lives since January.

Local media were heavily critical of the elections on Wednesday. “Awami League Wins, Democracy Loses” was the headline carried by Prothom Alo, a Bengali-language newspaper with the largest circulation in the country. Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper said “widespread vote rigging, and intimidation of BNP-backed candidates, their workers and the press” had set a “new low for the country’s politics.”

Sharmeen Murshid, executive director of Brotee, a nonprofit election-monitoring group, said: “Based on our observations, these elections did not meet the parameters for free and fair polls. Although we saw only sporadic violence, we did observe widespread intimidation of voters and opposition activists and in some cases, outright rigging.”

Ms. Murshid added that turnout was low, especially among female voters, indicating that voters did not feel safe. “There was an atmosphere of fear,” she said.

Other analysts said the BNP’s withdrawal early on Tuesday had also affected turnout.

The Election Commission said voter turnout figures would be provided later in the week.

At a college hosting a polling station in southern Dhaka, stick-wielding activists chanted in support of the ruling Awami League as they chased away supporters of a rival group. At several other polling centers, the atmosphere appeared to be tense and Awami League activists outnumbered voters.

Hasan Mahmud, a leader of the Awami League, accused opposition supporters of launching attacks. He said Awami League activists had not targeted journalists.

Outside the Kabi Nazrul polling center in Dhaka’s Shakharibazar neighborhood, a would-be voter said he had decided to leave after clashes broke out. Another said she had arrived at the polling center only to find someone else had voted in her name.

In a statement, the U.S. embassy in Dhaka said: “We are disappointed by widespread, firsthand, and credible reports of vote-rigging, intimidation and violence … and the BNP’s decision to boycott the city corporation polls.” The statement called on the election commission and the government to investigate alleged irregularities.

Political analysts in Dhaka said violence in the run-up to the elections may have frightened voters. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, was attacked on three consecutive days during campaigning last week. The BNP blamed the government and the local press identified Awami League activists among the attackers. The Awami League said its supporters had been protesting peacefully.

Source: Wall Street Journal