Bangladesh goes to opposition-less polls

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Person voting

Bangladesh embraces 12th general elections (since its birth as a nation in 1971) on Sunday, a working day in the Muslim majority country, amidst violence and uncertainties as the prime opposition party has boycotted the polls.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) also called for a 48-hour Hartal (general strike) beginning from 6 am on 6 January till 6 am on 8 January alleging that the election under the incumbent Awami League (AL) government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will never be fair and fair.

Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical party of Bangladesh, took out processions in the capital city of Dhaka in support of the Hartal, apprehending turmoil on the poll day. After BNP’s absence only a compromised opposition Jatiya Party remains in the fray. The rest (nearly 25 political parties putting their candidates) are mostly allies to the ruling party. So understandably PM Hasina is winning for the fourth consecutive term to lead the poverty stricken south Asian nation, which is strategically located between India and Myanmar.

The polling of votes began on 8 in the morning (Bangladesh is ahead of India by 30 minutes) where 120 million registered electorates will exercise their franchise to elect 299 representatives for the Jatiya Sansad (election in one constituency was postponed due to the death of an independent candidate). More than 1500 candidates representing over 27 political parties are contesting the national election, whose fates will be decided by the voters through over 42,000 polling stations across the country. The polling will continue till 4 in the afternoon and counting of ballots to start subsequently making the results out by Monday morning.

Meanwhile PM Hasina, accompanied by her sister Sheikh Rehana and daughter Saima Wazed, exercised her franchise as the first voter in Dhaka City College polling station and expressed confidence to win the polls. Over 750,000 police and paramilitary forces have been deployed on the ground, where Bangladesh Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel will also be on duty to ensure security to 170 million Bangladeshi nationals during the polls.

More than 150 foreign observers representing over 30 countries and organisations like the Commonwealth, European Union, US-based International Republican Institute, South Asia Democratic Forum, National Democratic Institute, etc arrived in Dhaka to monitor the election. Three senior members of the Election Commission of India also joined the mission.

Bangladesh chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal assured that the election will be conducted in a free, fair and neutral manner. Each and every Bangladeshi voter can go to the polling centre to exercise their franchises, stated Awal adding that the Bangladesh polls should be observed by the national as well as international agencies. Even though the main opposition party (BNP) is not in the fray, it should not be a major challenge to the election commission, he added. Any obstruction of the electoral processes will not be tolerated, asserted the election commission.

However, the prelude to the polls witnessed a series of violent incidents in the country. The burning of Benapole Express’s four coaches on Friday night by the miscreants resulted in the death of five passengers including two children and injuries to many others. The incident took place in Gopibagh area as the train was moving towards Kamlapur railway station in Dhaka. Next morning, a polling station (under Bandar police station) and a vehicle were set ablaze in Chittagong locality. PM Hasina expressed shock over the casualties and prayed for an early recovery to all injured persons.

Maintaining its demand to conduct the polls under a neutral and caretaker government, which Hasina denied, the BNP and its political allies organised a number of political rallies in the country. But the mass rally on 28 October turned violent, where at least four people were killed and nearly 300 vehicles torched on the streets. The government in Dhaka started a massive crackdown and put thousands of BNP leaders (including its secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir) and workers behind the bars.

BNP’s president Khaleda Zia (78) is ailing and with more to it the former Bangla Prime Minister is under house arrest for graft charges. Even the party’s acting president Tarique Rahman has been living in self-imposed exile since 2008. Son of former Bangla President Ziaur Rahman and Zia, even faced 18 months jail term before leaving to London and staying there till date. So the party has been termed as a leaderless entity on the ground and they are assumed not to be in a position to contest the elections.

Speaking to this writer from Dhaka, political analyst Abdul Kalam revealed that this is really an opposition-less election as even Jatiya Party also received favour from the ruling AL. Initially, Jatiya Party was also planning to boycott the election along with the BNP and its allies. Soon the ruling party vacated 26 seats for it, withdrawing the nominees to get the only opposition party in the fray. The ruling AL fielded candidates in 263 constituencies and offered six seats to its political allies under Mahajoat. Hasina’s party also encouraged more AL leaders to file nominations so that the election can be shown as a participatory one. Among 400 independent candidates, one can find many AL leaders as dummies, asserted Kalam.

Hasina (76) continues to win the parliamentary elections in 2008, 2014, and 2019 to already emerge as the longest-serving government head among women in the world. Daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina urged the Bangladeshi voters to exercise their franchises in more numbers. She claimed that only AL can lead the country to prosperity and growth. In the election manifesto, Hasina promised to convert the digital Bangladesh to a Smart Bangladesh. She also assured that her party will always protect and promote the spirit of democracy, offer quality education to youths, modernise agriculture, make healthcare services affordable to all, etc.

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