Deadly violence mars contentious Bangladesh elections

Thousands of protesters firebomb more than 200 polling stations in effort to disrupt 'joke' elections; at least 19 dead

Bangladeshi protestors burn election material at a polling station in the northern town of Bogra on Jan. 5, 2014. Protestors firebombed polling stations and attacked police as Bangladesh went ahead with a violence-plagued election boycotted by the opposition.

Violence has marred controversial general elections in Bangladesh, leaving at least 19 people dead in clashes between police and opposition supporters, who have denounced the vote.

Frustrated with the terms of the elections, thousands of protesters firebombed polling stations and stole ballot papers, as deadly violence flared across the South Asian nation during Sunday's elections, which was boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party.

The BNP is protesting a decision by President Sheikh Hasina Wajed's Awami League government to scrap the practice of having a neutral caretaker administration oversee elections.

Police said more than 200 polling stations were set on fire or trashed by mobs Sunday in a bid by opposition activists to disrupt the contest. Polls closed at 4 p.m. local time after eight hours of voting. Final results are expected in the early Monday morning.

Local television reported that only a single person voted in the first three hours at one station.

With the opposition trying to enforce a general strike as part of a strategy to disrupt the elections, government officials acknowledged the turnout was significantly lower than usual.

"The turnout was low, partly due to the boycott by many parties," Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, the election commission head.

Two people killed Sunday were beaten to death while guarding polling stations in northern districts, which bore the brunt of the violence.

"We've seen thousands of protesters attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs," Syed Abu Sayem, police chief of the northern Bogra district, told Agence France-Presse. "The situation is extremely volatile,” he said, adding that thousands of ballot papers had been set on fire.

Most of the other victims were opposition activists who were shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries sustained in a Molotov cocktail attack on his truck.

"We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs," said Mokbul Hossain, police chief in Parbatipur, a northern town. "It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons."

Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the run up to elections.

The Awami League-led government has accused the BNP of orchestrating the violence and kept its leader, Khaleda Zia, confined to her home for a week.

Alarmed by the violence, the U.S. and European Union declined to send election observers.

The outcome of the contest is not in doubt as voting is taking place in only 147 of the 300 parliamentary constituencies. Awami League candidates or allies have a clear run in the remaining 153.

The government said it had to hold the vote after parliament's five-year term expired, but the BNP decried the vote as a joke.

More violence

Many fear that the election is likely to stoke violence after the bloodiest year of unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971.

Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, is the world's eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest in Asia. More turmoil will undermine efforts to improve the lot of its population of 154 million, a third of whom live below the poverty line.

A local rights group says more than 500 people have been killed since January 2013, including victims of clashes that erupted after the conviction of Islamists for crimes dating back to the 1971 liberation war.

Speaking to Al Jazeera Sunday, Amena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said: "The election has not been democratic. It was an in-house election. The government could have held a more inclusive election and the election commission could have delayed the vote further."

Al Jazeera and wire services 

Ghost of 1971 war shadows Bangladesh election

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