Dhaka, January 6: Bangladesh will go to the polls on Sunday in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to win a fourth straight term in the absence of the main Opposition BNP which on Saturday began a 48-hour nationwide strike against the "illegal government" amidst sporadic violence. A total of 119.6 million registered voters are eligible to vote at Sunday's polls in more than 42,000 polling stations, according to the country's Election Commission.
More than 1,500 candidates from 27 political parties are contesting in the election besides 436 independent candidates. Over 100 foreign observers, including three from India, will monitor the 12th general election, which is being held under tight security. Bangladesh Pre-Poll Violence: Four Dead as Benapole Express Train Catches Fire; Police Terms 'planned Attack' (Watch Videos).
The election commission said voting will start at 8 am and will end at 5 pm. The results are expected to start flowing from early on January 8. Prime Minister Hasina's ruling Awami League is expected to win for a straight fourth time as the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former premier Khaleda Zia, 78, who is under house arrest as a convict of graft charges, boycotted the polls.
Hasina, 76, in a nationally televised address this week has urged the pro-democratic and law-abiding parties not to fuel ideas that “disrupt" the country's constitutional process. The BNP has called for a 48-hour nationwide general strike which began at 6 am and will end at 6 am on Monday.
The number of vehicles on the street is fewer compared to other days, but despite fear of arson attacks, public vehicles were plying the streets. The 27 political parties that are contesting the elections include the opposition Jatiya Party (JAPA). The rest are members of the ruling Awami League-led coalition, which experts dub as "satellite parties." Bangladesh Train Fire Video: Four Killed, Many Injured After Passenger Train Travelling From Town Bordering India Set on Blaze.
As part of its vote boycott campaign, BNP has been calling countrywide general strikes. The party has been claiming no election under the incumbent government would be fair and credible. BNP spokesman Ruhul Kabir Rizvi announced the strike, saying it was aimed to press for their demands for "resignation of the illegal government, establishment of a non-party neutral government and release of all party leaders and activists from prison".
Ahead of the elections, Hasina's government arrested tens of thousands of rival politicians and supporters, a move which rights groups have condemned as an attempt to paralyse the Opposition. Prime Minister Hasina said the Awami League, whenever it came to power, ensured the economic and social development of the people of the country.
Authorities deployed Army troops across the country two days ago "in aid of civil administration" to maintain peace and order during the voting. Despite the strict security arrangements, unidentified people carried homemade bomb and arson attacks in empty polling centres in four out of 64 administrative districts, while BNP activists clashed with police in another district, leaving five people wounded on Friday.
At least 14 arson attacks were reported in 16 hours till 9:30 am Saturday, according to Fire Service statistics. At least four people were killed when a passenger train was torched by arsonists near Dhaka on Friday night. The BNP has demanded a UN-supervised investigation into the incident which it described as a "pre-planned" act of sabotage.
Detectives said they arrested eight persons, including Dhaka south city unit BNP joint convener Nabi Ullah Nabi, for their involvement in setting fire to the Benapole Express. They claimed to have found involvement of the BNP and the activists of the Jubo Dal, the youth wing of the party, in last night's attack.
BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi on Saturday denounced the arson attack and said the government was playing with fire to make political gains by blaming the Opposition. Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) said Bangladesh is at a critical juncture.
"Bangladesh is at a critical juncture. The once vibrant, if imperfect democracy will soon hold a third election without a credible alternative to the incumbent government," it said in a recent report. The think tank said while it was now too late to delay the January election, the Awami League and BNP should work after the vote to de-escalate the country's political tensions, including through concessions by both sides.
Political science professor and analyst Harunur Rashid said he feared Bangladesh might need to wait for an indefinite period to witness a congenial political atmosphere because of the highly conflicting nature between the two major parties. Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Kader on Friday said there was no perfect democracy anywhere in the world, but BNP's participation could have made the upcoming elections more competitive.
Emerging from a meeting with the Commonwealth Observer Group, Kader said, "They have agreed with us that nowhere in the world there is a cent per cent or perfect democracy". He said an unprecedented "mass tide" has been created in favour of the party across the country ahead of the elections.
Hoping that the national election would be held in a free, fair, and peaceful manner, he said the election means a festival of democracy to the people of Bangladesh, and this time it is no exception. "Ignoring the severe cold, the people have welcomed the election and taken part in the polls campaign. A mass tide has been created across the country in favour of the boat (the Awami Party's election symbol)," Kader said. He commented on the BNP's general strike on election day and said it is now an "obsolete tool" in Bangladesh's politics.
Hasina has been in power since 2009 and won the last election in December 2019, in a poll marred by deadly violence and accusations of poll rigging. The BNP boycotted the 2014 election but joined the one in 2019, which party leaders later said was a mistake, alleging the voting was marred with widespread rigging and intimidation.
BNP's boycott announcement this time, however, initially posed a challenge to Hasina on the legitimacy of the January 7 polls as JAPA also expressed its reluctance to join the fray but agreed to participate as the ruling party decided to spare them 26 seats, withdrawing their candidates. Awami League also left six seats to its partners in the 14-party ruling alliance while Hasina encouraged independent and rebel candidates to contest to make the polling participatory while the ruling party was carrying out a campaign for high voter turnouts.
Senior BNP leader Abdul Moyeen Khan on Friday called the government efforts "childish", proving its "political bankruptcy". Analysts and watchdogs, however, said the country of 170 million was heading for virtual one-party rule, while many voters said they found no charm in voting this time as the polling was set to reelect the incumbent government.
Bangladesh's economy has also slowed sharply since the Russia-Ukraine war boosted prices of fuel and food imports, forcing Bangladesh to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout of USD 4.7 billion last year. Many fear that a fourth straight term for Hasina would worsen the economic situation, deepening their despair.