Nauka (boat) or dhaner sheesh (paddy sheaf)? That’s the big question as Bangladesh votes on Sunday at the end of two months of a polarising and often violent campaign that has seen workers of the ruling Awami League clash with supporters of the main Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
While the ruling coalition is banking on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s track record of “development”, hoping people will favour the ‘boat (the Awami League’s election symbol)’ over the Opposition’s paddy sheaf, and send her to power for a third straight term, the Opposition coalition, the Jatiya Oikya Front (National United Front), is hoping anti-incumbency will finally bring down the government and pave the way for release of BNP leader Khaleda Zia from jail.
While many in the Awami League are confident of a victory, there is also concern that the credibility of the polls may be challenged if the security situation worsens. The country is under a tight security cover, with over 6 lakh security personnel, including several thousand soldiers and paramilitary border guards, on alert.
Bangladesh’s 11th national election is set to be held from 8 am to 4 pm on Sunday, without any breaks. Early trends and results will start coming in by Sunday night. According to the Bangaldesh Election Commission, 1,848 candidates are in the fray for 299 out of the 300 seats in parliament.
Hasina expressed fears that the Opposition could boycott elections in the middle of elections as part of a “political trick” to evade a “humiliating defeat”. “I want to caution all about the character of BNP… they may say in the middle (of the elections) that we are boycotting the polls. In that case, I will ask our candidates and other contenders to continue polls until the voting is ended,” Hasina, 71, said.
The BNP said its chief Khaleda Zia had sent out a message from jail, asking voters to guard polling centres until the declaration of results. Reading out from “Khaleda’s message” at a press conference held in the party’s Nayapaltan central office, senior BNP joint secretary General Rizvi Ahmed said, “I request you (people) to stand in queue for vote after offering Fazr prayers. Guard the centres and stay there until the result is announced. You will get a chance tomorrow to rid the autocratic rule. Go to the polling centres in groups ignoring all threats…”
Senior Awami League leader H T Imam, however, dismissed the Opposition’s fears of trouble from the ruling party. Talking to The Sunday Express, Imam said the national elections would “set an example in the region for its peaceful atmosphere”. “The EC is more than capable of organising a fair, credible and participatory election,” he said.
About 10.41 crore people – 5.25 cr men and 5.16 women – are eligible to vote this election, with about 1.2 crore youth voters expected to hold the key. Capital Dhaka’s streets are dotted with banners of youth icon and Bangladesh cricketer Shakib Khan, asking young people to exercise their voting rights. “Ebar Tomar Pala (Now, it’s your turn),” they read.
Kamal Hossain, chief of the main Opposition alliance, on Saturday urged returning officers and other election officials to discharge their duties “with dignity”. “If you snatch anyone’s right, remember that someone else is taking away the right of your father, mother, wife and children. If you do this, people, history and the law won’t forgive you,” he said.
Chief Election Commissioner K M Nurul Huda on Saturday directed law enforcers to create a safe environment during Sunday’s election.