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Bangladesh ruling party leads after boycotted vote

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh's ruling party was leading in preliminary results Monday following one of the most violent elections in the country's history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that has undermined the legitimacy of the vote.

On Monday, soldiers in combat gear patrolled streets with light traffic and most business remained closed. At least 18 people were killed in election-related violence as police fired at protesters and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations Sunday.

"We are passing our days in fear and anxiety. These two major parties don't care about anything," said Abdur Rahman, an accountant and Dhaka resident. "Only Allah knows what is in store now for us."

The political feuding in this South Asian nation can be traced back decades, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the opposition leader, tussle for control over this country of 160 million. The country has been ruled by either of these women — both from powerful political families — for nearly 22 years.

The squabbling between the two women — known as the "Battling Begums" — is at the heart of much of the political drama. "Begum" is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.

A group of opposition parties, including the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the election after Hasina refused to heed their demands to step down and appoint a neutral administration to oversee the polls. They say Hasina might rig the election if she stays in office, a claim she denies.

Opposition activists have staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades in unrest that has killed at least 293 people since last year.

Given the opposition boycott, a win by the Awami League is not in doubt. But the problematic election raises pressure on the government to hold talks with the opposition. The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say.

Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper described the polls as the deadliest in the country's history, and said in an editorial that the Awami League won "a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively."

But the editorial also was critical of the opposition's role in fueling violence.

"Political parties have the right to boycott elections. They also have the right to motivate people to side with their position. But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election," the newspaper said.

According to preliminary election results, the Awami League party was leading the election for the 300-seat Parliament with 232 seats, well above the 151 seats needed for a majority to form a new government.

Because of the opposition boycott, about half the seats were uncontested, allowing the Awami League to rack up many victories.

Turnout was only 22 percent, according to election officials who asked that their names not be used because the election is so politically sensitive.

As the political situation unravels, Bangladesh also is trying to emerge from suffocating poverty and reinvigorate its $20 billion garment industry. The industry has been rocked by a series of disasters, including a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers. The deaths laid bare the harsh working conditions in an industry that employs 4 million Bangladeshis and provides clothing to major Western retailers.

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Bangladeshi policemen kick a suspect, following an attack on a polling station, in Bogra, north of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Jan. 5.

(AP)

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