Bombs enforce boycott of Bangladesh 'sham' election

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The Independent Online
TIM McGIRK

Dhaka

When Shafiqul Islam, a research scientist, got word that for yesterday's election he was assigned as officer to the Udyan School polling station on Dhaka university campus he could not believe his ill fortune. The polling station was next door to a residence hall whose students belonged to the Awami League party, violently determined to boycott Bangladesh's elections.

By late morning, Mr Islam's polling station had been visited by more bombs than voters. Even with armed police guarding the building, 12 bombs and Molotov cocktails had been hurled over the fence. Only eight of his 2,613 registered voters had dared to turn up.

As if on cue, another home-made bomb, not much bigger than a loud firework, landed in the courtyard. The polling officer laughed at the farce these elections had become. "How can you expect voters to come when it's like this?"

Even at the polling station where the Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, voted in Dhaka, only a scattering of people showed up to cast their ballots.

Throughout Bangladesh yesterday, a combination of fear, disillusion and a boycott by the three main opposition parties - the Awami League, the Muslim Jamat-e-Islam party and the Jatiya party - conspired to keep voters away from the polls. The only party running is the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Ms Zia will be relieved to get a 15 per cent turn-out.

Soldiers patrolled the streets of Dhaka. But the 400,000 security forces assigned to election duty could not guard all the polling places. In the seaport of Chittagong and in the villages dotted across Bangladesh's lowlands, at least nine people were killed and scores injured.

Opposition party supporters set fire to dozens of polling stations, destroyed ballot boxes and frightened away voters, according to the government, which claimed that voting was sabotaged in 300 out of the country's 21,000 constituencies. In one Chittagong constituency, 20 polling officials were allegedly kidnapped.

One BNP candidate in Gopalganj, a former MP, was reportedly found in possession of ballot papers, a rifle and explosives. M H Khan Monju was arrested along with 200 supporters.

Ms Zia's government blamed the opposition's threats for scaring away the voters. But the opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, from the Awami League, said the low turn-out was a protest against the ruling party. "It was a sham and a dishonest show," Ms Hasina said.

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