DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Voting was underway Sunday in Bangladesh's contentious parliamentary elections, seen as a referendum on what critics call Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's increasingly authoritarian rule, amid complaints from both ruling party and opposition activists of attacks on supporters and candidates.
Hasina's main rival is former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who a court deemed ineligible for the race for office because she is in prison for corruption.
The two women have been in and out of power — and prison — for decades.
In Zia's absence, opposition parties have formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, an 82-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer and former member of Hasina's Awami League party.
By 8 a.m. Sunday when polls opened, about 80 people had lined up to cast their ballot at a voting center in Dhaka's Uttara Model Town area. Polling workers appointed by candidates showed Election Commission officials empty ballot boxes before the first paper ballot was cast. Awami League supporters had set up help desks on the street outside the polling station for voters to find their registration serial numbers.
The election campaign has been marred by the arrests and jailing of what the opposition says are thousands of Hasina opponents, including six candidates for Parliament. At least a dozen people were killed in campaign-related clashes.
"Hasina's use of the state machinery to subjugate the opposition virtually ensures her electoral victory," said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, a South Asia analyst for New York-based Eurasia Group.
Both sides are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2014, when Zia and the BNP boycotted elections and voter turnout in the South Asian nation of 160 million people was only 22 percent. More than half of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested. The Awami League's landslide victory was met by violence that left at least 22 people dead.
This election, some 104 million people are eligible to vote, including many young, first-time voters.
While rights groups sound the alarms about the erosion of Bangladesh's democracy, Hasina has promoted a different narrative, highlighting an ambitious economic agenda that has propelled Bangladesh past larger neighbors Pakistan and India by some development measures.
Voters "will give us another opportunity to serve them so that we can maintain our upward trend of development, and take Bangladesh forward as a developing country," Hasina, who is seeking a third consecutive term, said after casting her ballot along with her daughter and sister in Dhaka.
Walking with a cane, Hossain cast his vote near his home in Dhaka, saying that he was receiving complaints about vote-tampering and intimidation from various parts of the country.
The Associated Press had received more than 50 calls Sunday from people across the country who identified themselves as opposition supporters complaining of intimidation and threats, and being forced to vote in front of ruling party men inside the polling booths. The AP could not independently verify the complaints.
The United News of Bangladesh news agency reported that at least seven people were killed in clashes with rival partisans and police in six districts across the country. Police officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Voting is expected to conclude at 4 p.m. across more than 40,000 polling stations. Counting will begin soon after the voting ends.
Hasina has expressed great confidence in the outcome, already inviting foreign journalists and election observers to her official residence on Monday, by which time the results are expected to be known.
About 600,000 security officials, including army and paramilitary forces, have been deployed across the country in a bid to contain violence in Bangladesh's 11th general elections. Bangladesh's telecommunications regulator shut down mobile internet services nationwide to prevent possible protests from organizing.
The normally traffic-clogged streets of the capital were largely empty because of a ban on vehicles for everyone except election observers and journalists. Many residents of Dhaka had left days earlier to vote in their home towns.
At one polling station, Istiaq Kahmad, a doctor in Dhaka, said it was critical that people "select the right government to maintain the development and enrich our country further."
Sultana Rajia Rotna, another voter, said she'd gone out to cast a ballot after hearing that the streets of Dhaka were peaceful.
"I think the country has already developed much and it will be developed more. That's why I'm here casting the vote," she said in Bengali.