By Sudipto Ganguly and Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina swept to a fourth straight term in power, with her party winning almost 75% of the seats in Sunday’s general election that was boycotted by the main opposition and drew a low turnout.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which participated in the 2018 vote but kept away in 2014, boycotted the polls after Hasina refused its demands to resign and allow a neutral authority to run the general election.
The U.S. State Department said elections in Bangladesh were not free and fair, adding Washington was concerned by reports of vote irregularities and condemned violence that took place. The British government’s foreign office also condemned what it called “acts of intimidation and violence.”
Hasina played down the boycott by the opposition and said her aim for the next five years was to boost the economy.
“Each political party has right to take decision, absence of one party in election does not mean democracy is absent,” she told reporters at her official residence in the capital Dhaka.
The daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding father of Bangladesh who was killed in an army coup in 1975 along with most members of the family, Hasina, 76, first became prime minister in 1996. This will be her fifth term overall.
In her past 15 years in power she has been credited with turning around the economy and the massive garments industry, while winning international praise for sheltering Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.
Critics accuse Hasina of authoritarianism, human rights violations, crackdowns on free speech and suppression of dissent.
The economy has also slowed sharply since the Russia-Ukraine war pushed up prices of fuel and food imports, forcing Bangladesh to turn last year to the International Monetary Fund for a $4.7 billion bailout. Inflation was 9.5% in November.
“The government must curb the crazy inflation. And I request them to lower tax and provide subsidies to poor people. We don’t want anything else,” said Abdul Halim, a plastic toy seller in Dhaka, while reading a newspaper pasted on a wall.
Bangladeshis largely stayed away from the election, which was marred by violence. Turnout was about 42% when polls closed, said chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal, compared with over 80% in the last election in 2018.
The ruling Awami League party won 222 seats out of 298, according to unofficial results released by the Election Commission.
Hasina herself won 249,962 votes from her constituency Gopalganj, about 165 km (100 miles) south of Dhaka, while her nearest rival secured just 469 votes.
Several nations, including India, Russia and China, congratulated Hasina.
MONTHS OF PROTESTS
Among the ruling party winners were actor Ferdous Ahmed and former Bangladesh cricket captains Shakib Al Hasan and Mashrafe Mortaza.
Rights groups warned of a virtual one-party rule by Hasina’s Awami League in the South Asian country of 170 million people while the United States and Western nations, key customers of Bangladesh’s garment industry, had called for a free and fair election, the 12th since independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Independent candidates, many of them Awami League party members of various ranks, won 62 seats, meaning parliament will largely be without credible opposition for the next five years.
The BNP, whose alliance won seven seats in the 2018 election, has accused the ruling party of propping up “dummy” independent candidates to try to make the election look credible, a claim the Awami League has denied.
The BNP had called a two-day strike nationwide through Sunday, asking people to shun the election. On Monday, it called for a fresh election under a caretaker administration.
“We demand the immediate cancellation of the dummy election, resignation of Hasina and formation of a non-party neutral government for holding a fresh election,” senior BNP leader Abdul Moyeen Khan said.
Hasina has accused the opposition of instigating anti-government protests that have rocked Dhaka since late October and killed at least 14 people.
Last week, at least four people were killed in a train fire that the government called arson. Several polling booths, schools and a Buddhist monastery were also set ablaze.
Police said at least five Awami League activists were attacked and injured on Monday by supporters of the losing independent candidate in the coastal district of Patuakhali.
Shakil Ahmed, an assistant professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, said the polls would do little to ease the political upheaval in Bangladesh and warned that violence could continue post-election.
“We need a new political settlement to express people’s will regarding how to govern our country,” said Debapriya Bhattacharya, a macroeconomist and public policy analyst.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly and Ruma Paul, additional reporting by Sam Jahan and Kanishka Singh; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Nick Macfie)