Bangladesh votes in election without opposition


Dhaka, Jan 7 (AFP/APP):Bangladesh began voting Sunday in an election guaranteed to give Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina her fifth term in office, after a boycott by opposition parties whose ranks have been decimated by mass arrests.
              Hasina has presided over exceptional economic growth in a country once beset by grinding poverty, but her government has been accused of rampant human rights abuses and a ruthless opposition crackdown.
              Hasina's party faces almost no effective rivals in the seats it is contesting but has avoided fielding candidates in a few seats, an apparent effort to avoid the legislature being branded a one-party institution.
              Polls will stay open until 5:00 pm (1200 GMT) with results expected after midnight, but Hasina's opponents have called a weekend general strike and urged the public not to vote.
              Some voters said they had been threatened with the confiscation of government benefit cards needed to access welfare payments if they refused to cast ballots for the ruling Awami League.
              "They said they would seize it from me if I don't vote," Lal Mia, 64, told AFP in the central district of Faridpur.
              "They said since the government feeds us, we have to vote for them."
              The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other parties staged months of protests last year demanding Hasina step down ahead of the vote. 
              Around 25,000 opposition cadres including the BNP's entire local leadership were arrested in the ensuing crackdown, the party says. The government puts the figure at 11,000.
              Scattered protests continued in the days ahead of the election, including a few hundred opposition supporters who marched through central Dhaka on Friday -- a shadow of the hundreds of thousands seen at rallies last year.
              The election commission said around 175,000 police officers and more than 515,000 members of the Ansar reserve force had been deployed to keep order during the vote.