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Politics

Modi congratulates Bangladeshi leader as opposition calls for revote

Hasina faces rocky start to new term after election marred by violence

Dhaka residents stand next to a mural of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been accused of suppressing opposition groups. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

DHAKA -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Monday to congratulate her for a "decisive" victory in Sunday's election, India's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

The call comes amid protests from opposition parties after a turbulent day of voting, marred by violence and allegations of vote rigging.

The alliance led by Hasina's Awami League won 288 out of 298 seats in Sunday's election, according to the election commission. The main opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, took just seven seats, with the results for two seats delayed.

Modi telephoned Hasina on Monday morning "to convey his heartiest congratulations on the decisive results of the election," according to the statement from the Indian ministry. Modi expressed confidence that the two countries' partnership will continue to flourish under her "far-sighted leadership," and that India attaches priority to Bangladesh as a neighbor, a close partner for regional development, security and cooperation, and a central pillar of India's "Neighborhood First" policy, the statement said.

Hasina thanked Modi for being the first leader to call her to convey congratulations.

Critics say the prime minister worked to limit voters' choice by cracking down on opposition supporters, the media and internet activity. Opposition parties said that more than 15,000 of their supporters were arrested during the campaign. BNP leader Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister and longtime political rival of Hasina's, was jailed in February for corruption.

"My younger brother was arrested," a 30-year-old woman who lives in Dhaka told Nikkei. "He is a BNP supporter, but was just walking on the street near our house. The current government is trying to put fear in our minds."

Attention turns to how the international community will react to the results, which leave Hasina poised for a third straight term as prime minister and fourth term overall.

"The reaction from the international community will depend on how India -- the regional hegemon -- responds," an executive at a major exporter had said before the telephone call.

"Our democracy was set back a lot this time," the executive said. "Hasina has done well in the past five years. There should not be any need for her to use all her powers -- including the courts, police, election commission and armed forces -- to crack down on freedom of speech and attack the opposition."

Hasina is expected to form a cabinet as soon as early January.

With both ruling and opposition groups pledging double-digit economic growth, the debate focused less on policy and more on whether Hasina should continue to govern.

Economic growth in Bangladesh has accelerated under Hasina, a fact that has bolstered her support in business circles. But her alleged tactics have generated a backlash even among her backers.

Opposition parties said on Sunday night they have gotten reports of voter fraud from all over the country and have demanded a fresh election.

"Two days before the poll, a friend and AL supporter living in the same village told me, 'You don't need to go to the polling center to cast your ballots. I will vote for all seven members of your family,'" said a 42-year-old man living outside Dhaka. "I am living in this village so I couldn't refuse him."

India's election watchdog on Sunday afternoon called the election "fair and peaceful." The U.S. ambassador to the country, however, issued a statement before the vote that was at odds with this assessment.

"The U.S. is concerned by the high level of campaign violence over the last two weeks," U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl Miller said Thursday. "It appears opposition party candidates have borne the brunt of most violence."

It is unclear if countries will come out in support of the opposition's call for new elections.

The most pressing topic for Hasina, who stands poised to govern through 2024, is expected to be maintaining public order. A total of 17 supporters of both ruling and opposition parties were killed during violence on Sunday despite the deployment of a 600,000-strong security force, according to local media.

The gap between rich and poor is widening in the world's eighth-most-populous country, which is home to 160 million people. Many citizens are working overseas due to a lack of job prospects at home. A 2016 terror attack at a Dhaka cafe that killed 22 people is thought to have been partially motivated by the Awami League's virtual one-party rule and a sense of stagnation in society.

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