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Bangladesh Poll: Is The Die Cast?

There has been no let-up in subversive activities in the run-up to January 7, the day Bangladeshis will vote in the 12th general election. At least four people died after miscreants set some coaches of the Benapole Express, a passenger train, ablaze in Dhaka late on Friday. A fortnight ago, four people had died as another train was set on fire in the capital. Arson has been reported in at least two schools that were listed as polling centres.

Police have warned of strict action against those involved in spreading fear to derail the ‘democratic’ process. A chunk of the Opposition, including BNP, former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s party, is boycotting the electoral process. A 48-hour general strike it had called began today. The ruling Awami League, PM Sheikh Hasina’s party, claims it will have no effect. And spearheading the move to blunt the opposition narrative is the PM herself.

In a televised address to the nation, she requested political parties and institutions that believe in democracy and the rule of law to not fuel any ideas that disrupt the constitutional process.

Hasina, who is eyeing a fourth term, recounted her government’s achievements towards establishing a ‘sustainable foundation for a developed Bangladesh’. My party’s goal is to turn the county into “smart Bangladesh” by 2041, she said. “If I’ve made any mistakes along the way, my request to you will be to look at the matter with the eyes of forgiveness. If I can form the government again, I will get a chance to correct the mistakes. Give me an opportunity to serve you by voting for the ‘Boat’ (her party’s election symbol),” Prothom Alo quoted the prime minister as saying.

Hasina expects the polls to be free and fair but ensuring that and drawing people to the booths will be a challenge, says Major ASM Shamsul Arefin (Retd), a Bangladeshi researcher on elections who has authored four books on the topic. He expects a close contest in about 60 per cent of the seats and expects a 40 per cent turnout there. The rural areas will see a higher voter footfall than the metropolitan and other areas, he says. The government anticipates trouble so over eight lakh security personnel, including the army, have been deployed as have been 3000 magistrates.

Sheikh Adnan Fahad, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, believes the Opposition BNP is doing itself a disservice by boycotting the elections. Had the BNP fielded candidates, the elections would have been more participatory but we have seen many BNP leaders quitting the party to contest the polls, Fahad told StratNews Global. “BNP activists are setting fire to public transport, killing innocent people, even law enforcers in the name of political movement. By conducting such atrocious activities, BNP is reminding people of their past— of allying with militant and religious fanatics”.

Dr Sharin Shajahan Naomi, a Bangladeshi academic and activist who, as a child in the 1990s, witnessed violent aggression by the Jamaat-e-Islami, agrees that radicalism and extremism pose a threat. “The Jamaat’s aim to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state adjacent India, from where Pakistan can carry out operations against India. Sheikh Hasina’s greatest achievement to date has been to subdue this formidable group, which posed a tremendous threat to India as well as Bangladesh’s liberal Muslims and Hindus.”

In addition to the Jamaat, Hefajat-e-Islam, another Islamic group that was gaining prominence, has been effectively controlled by the Hasina government, she says. “Never before have there have been powerful feminist voices in the public sphere as under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. It is also important to keep in mind that her administration has brought unprecedented economic prosperity and stability to Bangladesh,” she told StratNews Global.

Fundamentalist and extremist forces remain quite strong in Bangladesh, she says. “Imagine what Bangladesh’s options would be in the event that Sheikh Hasina and Awami League lose their positions of authority.”

The results of the general election will start trickling in by Monday morning but many feel it will be a vote for continuity.

(The story is being republished courtesy StratNews Global)