Voters headed to the polls in Bangladesh Sunday following a campaign that was dominated by deadly violence and allegations of a crackdown on thousands of opposition activists by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government.
Electors began casting ballots at 8:00 am (0200 GMT) under tight security in a vote that is expected to deliver a historic but tainted fourth victory for Hasina.
Bangladesh’s leader has been lauded for boosting economic growth in the poor Asian nation during an unbroken decade in power and for welcoming Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.
But critics accuse her of growing authoritarianism and crippling the opposition — including arch-rival Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges she says are politically motivated — in a bid to cling on to power.
The weeks-long election campaign was marred by violence between supporters of her ruling Awami League party and activists from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Zia.
Some 600,000 security personnel were deployed across the South Asian country, including at 40,000 polling stations, in a bid to prevent further skirmishes.
Authorities have also ordered the country’s mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumours” that could trigger unrest.
There was fresh violence on the eve of the vote, however, when a ruling party activist was allegedly killed by supporters of the BNP and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami.
“He was attacked with rocks. He died on the way to hospital,” Mohammad Niamutullah, police chief in the southern town of Patia, told AFP.
The death brought to four the number of people confirmed killed by police since the election was announced on November 8, marking the country’s 11th parliamentary election since independence in 1971.
The BNP claims eight of its activists have died.
Opinion polls show Hasina, who has presided over six percent GDP expansion every year since she won a landslide in December 2008, heading for a comfortable victory that would extend her reign as the country’s longest-serving leader.