By: Nava Thakuria

The Bangladesh election authority has ended days of speculation, declaring that the country is up for general elections on Dec. 23, once again setting the stage for the bitter rivalry to resume between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her longtime foe, former Premier Begum Khalida Zia, who remains behind bars on corruption charges.  Rights critics complain the polls are already rigged to favor Sheikh Hasina.

Nonetheless, nearly 104 million voters, almost half of them women, are scheduled to elect 300 representatives to the Jatiya Sangsad, the national parliament. An additional 50 members are to be chosen by the elected nominees of various parties. The election commission said it will take on as many as 700,000 persons to supervise 40,000 polling stations across the nation, guarding them with 600,000 men in uniforms.

“Years of political deadlock between the two main parties, the Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have facilitated the rise of extremist groups, the narrowing of political debate, and the erosion of the rule of law,” according to a report by the International Crisis Group. Shahidul Alam, a world-renowned photographer and human rights activist, remains in prison on unspecified charges, with bail refused earlier this week. 

The polls take place against the backdrop of so-called machete gangs, shadowy figures who have targeted freethinkers, gay rights activists, public atheists, foreigners and others from the back of motorbikes, leaping off to maim or kill their prey, then speeding off.  Little is known of the assailants beyond the fact that they are apparently Islamic radicals.

Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh Awami League has been in power since 2009 and expects to win another five-year term. However, opposition parties are organizing to challenge her despite the fact that Khaleda, the BNP leader, is campaigning from prison where Sheikh Hasina put her.

Begum Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), charging that that they were hampered in campaigning, that their members had been penalized and that the outcome was fixed, boycotted the 10th parliamentary polls, leading to an overwhelming number of Awami League members elected unopposed.

The opposition parties are now demanding dissolution of parliament and the establishment of a neutral caretaker government to run affairs through the election. However, the Awami League has yet to agree with the idea. Hasina has only agreed to give the election commission appropriate power to conduct the polls in a free and fair manner.

The government has also stepped up its all-around initiatives for a peaceful polls. The rivalry between Khaleda and Hasina has endured for more than two decades. The two traded the prime ministership at virtually every election until Hasina attained primacy in 2009 and delivered a harsh crackdown, with their rivalry all but paralyzing government. However in recent years poverty alleviation has started to take hold, with extreme poverty at 12.9 percent, down from 17.6 percent in 2010. 

Given the rivalry between the two major political forces, law enforcement agencies are being put on high alert. The government agencies say they suspect opposition elements, Islamic terrorists, underworld criminals and anti-liberation forces have the potential to create mayhem prior to the polls. Special drives are being conducted across the country to seize illegal arms.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Dhaka, political commentator Saleem Samad said the country has also gone into election mode as the general elections must be conducted prior to Jan. 28. There has been initial confusion over the continued detention of Begum Zia and other activists, Samad said, although the constitution stipulates that polls are necessary with the end of Hasina’s second term.

In particular, said Samad, one of the country’s most prominent analysts, the recent rise of Islamist extremism has been posing a serious threat to the Muslim-majority country. Secular bloggers and LGBT activists are increasingly becoming the target of radicalized Muslims, he said.

“What is concerning for us that our country has slowly, but steadily, marched on the path of becoming a country of one nationality (Bangladeshi), one language (Bangla) and one religion (Sunni Muslim),” he said.

Citing the breakup by authorities of a network of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in West Bengal few years ago, Samad urged India’s north-eastern region to remain alert about jihadi elements after the ongoing crackdown on Islamist forces.

Thousands of Bangladeshi youths, he said, have joined various militia groups in Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, Indonesia, Philippines, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to fight alongside jihadis there.

He also expressed concern over the new Digital Security Act 2018, which has already come under fire from journalists, including editors, rights defenders and anti-corruption advocates. International rights watchdogs have condemned the law, which they charge seeks to criminalize freedom of the press, speech and expression in that country.

Hasina’s re-election is a hoped-for Indian goal as the premier has committed to make Bangladesh free from cross-border terrorism. Because of Dhaka’s relentless crackdown, northeast Indian militants have fled Bangladesh and have been pushed back into India. One fugitive on the run is Paresh Barua (top leader of United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent), who also faces the death penalty in the Bangladesh court.

Both India and Bangladesh have reached a steady bilateral relationship after many decades of diplomatic hiccups. Both New Delhi and Dhaka now regularly share common issues in an atmosphere of confidence and friendship.

The mutual trust has been further heightened after resolving half-century-old border demarcation disputes. Duty-free trade, joint venture infrastructure projects, commerce, tourism, a visa regime, communication through road, rail, river and air were a few areas of discussion between both nations. The talks on sharing of water from 56 international rivers are also in progress.

Celebrated exiled Bangla author Taslima Nasreen, while expressing anguish over recent arrests of many distinguished personalities including Shahidul Alam under the digital security laws, has made it clear that she still prefers Hasina over Begum Zia, who in the past has been allied with Jamaat-e-Islami. However, Taslima acknowledged that the faith and respect of many progressive individuals across the globe had for Hasina is slowly dwindling as the political crackdown wears on.