DHAKA, Bangladesh – Police in Bangladesh shot dead three protesters as suspected opposition activists stabbed an election official to death and set more than 100 polling stations on fire in a bid to disrupt general elections today that threaten to deepen the crisis in the South Asian nation.
The opposition and its allies are boycotting the vote, a move that undermines the legitimacy of the election and makes it unlikely that the polls will stem a wave of political violence that killed at least 275 people in 2013.
Police opened fire to stop protesters from seizing a polling center in northern Rangpur district, killing two people. In a similar incident in neighboring Nilphamari district, police fired into about two dozen protesters, leaving one person dead.
Police gave no further details, but Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper said the three men belonged to the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Elsewhere, police said suspected opposition activists stabbed to death a polling official, and local media reported that attackers torched more than 100 school buildings across the country in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations.
The voting began at 8 a.m. but local television stations showed mostly empty polling stations, still wrapped in early morning winter fog.
The election commission said polling has been suspended in at least 38 centers because of attacks by anti-election activists, burning of ballots and election materians.
Much of the capital, Dhaka, has been cut off from the rest of the country in recent weeks, as the opposition has pressed its demands through general strikes and transportation blockades. Civilians have been caught up in the bloodshed, with activists torching vehicles belonging to motorists who defy the strikes, leading to a growing sense of desperation over the political impasse.
“I want to go to vote, but I am afraid of violence,” said Hazera Begum, a teacher in Dhaka. “If the situation is normal and my neighbors go, I may go.”
The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country of 160 million and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.
The opposition demands that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and appoint a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election. But Hasina has refused, which means the election will mainly be a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. Awami League candidates are running unchallenged in more than half of the country’s 300 parliamentary constituencies.
Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.