On Sunday, Bangladesh will vote in its 11th general elections, which will be held amid widespread violence, deep mistrust and wrangling between the government and the opposition.
Despite earning global plaudits for sheltering nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, the decade-long tenure of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was marked by allegations of creeping authoritarianism, crushing of political rivals and a gag on media freedom.
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Hasina, 71, is seeking a record fourth term. Her party, the Awami League (AL), leads the Grand Alliance coalition, which is pitted against the Jatiya Oikya Front (or National Unity Front), led by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Both Hasina and Zia belong to political families, share a long rivalry and have alternated in power for most of the past three decades in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
In Zia’s absence, the National Unity Front alliance is being led by Kamal Hossain, 82, an Oxford-educated jurist and former law minister.
Hossain, however, is not contesting and therefore, it is not clear who will be the prime minister if the opposition alliance wins.
What makes it a high-stakes election
The Bangladesh parliamentary elections are being seen as a litmus test for the future of democracy in the world’s eighth-most populous country of over 170 million people.
The last election in 2014 was boycotted by the BNP and shunned by international observers as “an electoral farce”. More than half the seats remained uncontested that year, giving Hasina’s party a walkover.
A repeat of the one-sided 2014 election is being feared this year amid the opposition’s allegations of attacks on its candidates and harassment by the government.
Ali Riaz, professor in the department of politics and government at Illinois State University in the US, told Al Jazeera that the election is significant for two reasons.
“One, this is a moment to change the country’s direction away from authoritarianism, which saw a shrinking of democratic space, decimation of the opposition, gagging of the press and a general culture of fear,” he said.
For Riaz, the other reason is Bangladesh’s history of anti-incumbency.
“Bangladesh has never seen a situation where the incumbent has returned to power, except in 2014, which was anyway not a participatory election [because of the BNP boycott],” he said.
“Therefore, Bangladeshis have to decide whether they want to see change or continuity.”
Will the election be free and fair?
This is going to be the biggest question on the minds of over 100 million voters until Sunday.
The BNP claims half of the opposition’s 300 candidates were attacked while campaigning, while more than 11,500 of its members, including over a dozen contenders, have been detained in the past month.
Authorities last week blocked the BNP’s website, claiming it contained “indecent” and “obscene” material. Even its Facebook page was down for days.
Violent campaign clashes have claimed at least six lives so far – four BNP supporters and two from the Awami League.
Riaz said he is “seriously worried and deeply concerned” that there will be a “free, fair, credible and acceptable elections” in Bangladesh.
“Even the election commission is turning a blind eye,” he told Al Jazeera.
The opposition alliance even demanded the resignation of chief election commissioner K M Nurul Huda, accusing him of bias.
But the ruling AL has rejected allegations of intimidating the opposition, blaming the BNP instead of carrying out vandalism to delegitimise the vote.
“Their strategy of boycotting the 2014 election failed. So they changed their strategy and are now raising unnecessary and illogical allegations against the administration and the election commission,” AL’s Mahbubul Alam Hanif told Al Jazeera.
Bangladeshis have to decide whether they want to see change or continuity.
Amid international concern over the events in the past weeks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked “all stakeholders to ensure an environment free of violence, intimidation and coercion before, during and after the elections”.
The United States called off an observer mission it was financing because of delays in issuing visas, while Human Rights Watch said the election was being conducted in a “repressive political environment”.
What are the main issues?
There are four major issues deciding the contentious election: the country’s economy, Hasina’s alleged authoritarianism, the gag on media freedom, and 1971 war crimes.
Despite allegations of an authoritarian regime, Hasina succeeded in making notable economic progress during her tenure.
Estimates suggest that at the current rate of nearly 8 percent growth, Bangladesh would cross the per capita income of its more powerful neighbour, India, by 2020, and is expected to turn into a middle-income economy by 2024.
Export of ready-made garments constitutes nearly 82 percent of the country’s economy, with the output in 2017 slated at over $28bn.
In its election manifesto, the ruling AL has vowed to increase Bangladesh’s gross domestic product to 9 percent from the 7.8 percent reported in 2017-18.
The opposition Jatiya Oikya Front, on the other hand, has promised to raise the minimum wage of garment workers, freeze gas and electricity prices, and give the central bank more autonomy.
“Yes, Bangladesh has succeeded in terms of its economic growth, but there are spots and blemishes in that record. Disparity has increased, banking sector is in shambles,” Riaz told Al Jazeera.
‘Authoritarianism’ and attack on rivals
Observers say Bangladesh under Hasina turned into a de-facto one-party state, where the ruling party has usurped the constitutional rights of its opponents and common citizens.
Hasina’s regime saw a near decimation of the opposition, with her chief political rival, Khaleda Zia, sentenced to 10 years in jail for corruption and banned from contesting the election.
Zia faces more than 30 other charges, including sedition, which her party has denounced as politically motivated.
Recently, former chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha – the first Hindu to hold the post – wrote in his memoir, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, that the country was under an “autocratic government”.
A rattled opposition, in its poll manifesto, has promised changes in the law that would limit a person from holding the prime minister’s post for more than two terms. It has also vowed to reform the judiciary.
“Jatiya Oikya Front has committed to make changes such as balancing the power between the president and the prime minister,” said Riaz.
Gag on media freedom
Bangladesh is ranked 146 out of 180 countries in media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
According to RSF, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted in 2017 under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act – a broad law against any electronic communication that “tends to deprave or corrupt” the image of the state.
Last month, award-winning photographer and activist Shahidul Alam was released on bail after spending 107 days behind bars under the ICT Act.
Earlier this month, Alam was named by Time magazine as one of a group of journalists, including slain dissident Jamal Khashoggi, as the Person of the Year for 2018.
The draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) further spread a climate of fear for penalising obtaining papers, information or pictures from government offices without official consent.
The BNP has promised to scrap the controversial law.
1971 war crimes
The war of independence with Pakistan remains Bangladesh’s most divisive political issue.
Since coming to power in 2009, Hasina used the emotions surrounding the 1971 war to justify her move towards an authoritarian rule.
The Awami League projects itself as the party of liberation, painting the opposition – mainly the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, which was banned in 2013 – as “pro-Pakistan” and therefore, dangerous and disloyal.
An international crimes tribunal set up by Hasina in 2010 sentenced dozens of top Jamaat and BNP leaders to death and jail on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Riaz thinks the Jamaat “needs to reinvent itself” and take responsibility for its role in 1971. “They should have done it long time ago. It is long overdue,” he said.
Despite a ban, many leaders of the Jamaat are contesting Sunday’s elections in alliance with the BNP.