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AL, BNP set to go head to head in tense Bangladesh elections

  • Moinul Hoque Chowdhury,
    Published: 2018-12-30 04:14:41 BdST

Bangladeshis are heading on Sunday to general elections to be watched closely around the world after a tense and bruising electoral campaign marred by murders and violence.

The two main political camps, however, voiced fears and doubts on the eve of the parliamentary polls even though this is the first time all the parties are contesting in the polls with a partisan government in power.

The ruling Awami League fears the coalition of the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami may unleash large-scale violence during the election “like it did during the campaign and on the election eve”.

Awami League election conduction committee Co-Chairman HT Imam says they have information about a BNP-Jamaat plot to foil the election.

BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir suspects that the government will rig the vote with the help of the bureaucracy. Alleging attacks and intimidation of their candidates and supporters, he says the election is “going to be meaningless”.

Awami League President Sheikh Hasina has aired doubts about the willingness of the BNP, which sits out of parliament after a violent boycott of the last election in 2014, to stay in the race to the end.

The prime minister has urged all the other political parties to remain in the election even if the BNP stages a boycott, again.

Sheikh Hasina is seeking an unprecedented fourth term.

Sheikh Hasina is seeking an unprecedented fourth term.

The BNP’s Jatiya Oikya Front alliance, which was forged under Gono Forum chief Dr Kamal Hossain’s leadership ahead of the polls, has brushed aside Hasina’s doubts.

Dr Kamal, however, has kept a “but” in his comments. He says they will not stay away from the election “on their own accord”.

With the political heat soaring high amid a shivering cold wave, around 104 million voters in Bangladesh are expected to give their mandate at over 40,000 polling stations in 299 parliamentary constituencies from 8am to 4pm.

The election to another seat has been deferred after the death of a candidate during campaign following a long spell of cardiac problems.

Many see the election as a choice between continuance of development as promised by the Awami League and “restoration of democracy” pledged by the BNP. The Awami League is seeking a third straight term while the BNP is eyeing a return to power after a decade.

In a special election event co-organised last Thursday by and Deutsche Welle, Dhaka University teacher Saiful Alam Chowdhury said voters were sceptical about the pledges of ensuring development and democracy by the two main political camps.

“If I vote the BNP, will they save democracy?” he asked citing the deadly protests by the party in the past and its position on war crimes trial.

Senior journalist Mozammel Hossain Manju agreed about the dilemma facing the voters.

“The Awami League is maybe ahead given the development that has taken place over the past decade, but it also has minus points if you consider the allegation of infringement on the freedom of speech raised by the opposition,” he added.

The international media also focussed on these pledges by the two sides.

“Bangladesh poll seen as choice between freedom and prosperity,” read the headline of the Financial Times on the election.

“Bangladesh’s Bad Election Choice - The governing Awami League has delivered economic progress but not democracy. The opposition has problems of its own,” screamed the Wall Street Journal.

Law enforcers are strengthening security ahead of the 11th national parliamentary election. Army personnel are searching vehicles on Dhaka’s Elephant Road on Saturday after setting up a checkpoint. Photo: Abdullah Al Momin

Law enforcers are strengthening security ahead of the 11th national parliamentary election. Army personnel are searching vehicles on Dhaka’s Elephant Road on Saturday after setting up a checkpoint. Photo: Abdullah Al Momin

Amid heightened security, the authorities have blocked mobile phone internet citing it as a measure to prevent rumours and false information from spreading on the social media. But the move has incensed the netizens.     

The authorities have also banned motor vehicles on the election day and motorcycles for four days from Friday midnight.

Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda is optimistic about presenting the nation a successful, free and fair election.  

But he was unhappy with the election campaign atmosphere. “With sadness I’ve noticed there were incidents of violence, loss of life, bloodshed which hindered the fair atmosphere. These were unexpected."

Army chief Gen Aziz Ahmed, during a visit to a temporary military camp set up in Dhaka for the polls, called on voters to go to polling stations without fear.

The boycott by the BNP, its allies and many other parties in 2014 saw the Awami-led alliance form government by winning 234 seats, with more than half of all 300 candidates elected unopposed.

The BNP and its partners then failed to topple the government through a three-month street agitation from the first anniversary of that election. More than 100 people were killed in violence during the protests at the time, mainly in firebombings of buses.

The BNP, however, did not drop its demand for a non-partisan polls-time government saying “the people” would not allow any election with the ruling party in power.

Earlier this year, its chief Khaleda Zia was jailed for corruption, dealing a body blow to the party. Legal battles and protests again failed to free her from jail.

Kaleda Zia is behind bars.

Kaleda Zia is behind bars.

As the polls loomed, the BNP in a surprise move forged alliance with Dr Kamal, a former Awami League stalwart, and Hasina also agreed to sit for dialogue with them after snubbing calls for talks for long.

When she refused to give in to Dr Kamal-led Oikya Front’s demands in two rounds of election dialogue, the BNP decided to join the polls hoping that the people will “respond to the Awami League misrule through ballot”.

The Awami League, in the lead up to the election, hoped that the people will reject the BNP for its violent protests and alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party which has seen five of its leaders hang for war crimes during in 1971.