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|Violence has marred controversial general elections in Bangladesh, leaving at least 18 people dead in clashes between opposition supporters and police.
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 BNP, the main opposition party, and its allies.
Polls closed at 4pm (1000 GMT) after eight hours of voting and final results were expected in the early hours of Monday morning.
Police said more than 200 polling stations were set on fire or trashed by mobs in a bid by the opposition activists to wreck the contest.
AFP correspondents said there were no queues to vote, while local television reported that only a single person voted in the first three hours at one station.
The BNP is protesting against the decision by Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government to scrap the practice of having a neutral caretaker government oversee elections.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Dhaka, said: “The government did everything it could to bring the opposition on board, and blames the opposition entirely for the violence. The opposition, on the other hand, says it will accept nothing less than a neutral caretaker body and this government to step aside.”
With the opposition trying to enforce a general strike as part of a strategy to wreck the polls, 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, said without immediately giving a figure.
Two of those killed on 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 AFP news agency.
“The situation is extremely volatile.”
He described how thousands of ballot papers had been ceremoniously set on fire.
Most of the other victims were opposition activists who were shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries from a Molotov cocktail attack on his lorry.
“We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs,” Mokbul Hossain, police chief in the northern Parbatipur town, said
“It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons.”
In Dhaka, police confirmed at least two petrol bomb attacks on polling stations.
Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the build-up, but they failed to halt the bloodshed.
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.
Outcome not in doubt
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 said it was a joke.
“Yes, the festive mood is missing but this election is essential to ensure constitutional continuity,” Quamrul Islam, deputy law minister, said.
Hasina’s government amended the constitution in 2010 and decided to hold elections under an all-party government.
However, Zia argued that such a government would in effect be headed by the governing party which would undermine the fairness of the process.
More violence feared
Many fear that the election is likely to stoke violence after the bloodiest year of unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971.
The former East Pakistan is the world’s eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest in Asia, and 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.
The main Islamist party was banned by judges from taking part in the election, and its leaders are either in detention or in hiding.
Alarmed by the violence, the US, EU and Commonwealth all declined to send observers.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on 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.”