Ahead of Bangladesh vote, opposition says it has been silenced

DHAKA/NOAKHALI: Bangladesh has a general election this weekend, but opposition candidate Abdul Moyeen Khan says he has yet to hold a single public meeting in his constituency about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Dhaka, the capital. Thousands of campaign fliers bearing photographs of the nuclear physicist with flowing gray hair lie in piles at his home because his supporters are too frightened to put them up in public places, the 72-year-old said. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Muslim majority nation’s biggest opposition group, is fighting Sunday’s election as part of an alliance cobbled together three months ago. But its leaders, candidates such as Khan, and workers say they are facing violent attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests, that have stunted their ability to campaign. Posters of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League are plastered and hung up from utility poles across the country. But barely visible are those of its opponents, many of whom, including BNP chairperson and three-time premier Khaleda Zia, have been jailed on what the BNP calls trumped-up charges. Not trusting Hasina to hold a fair election, the BNP boycotted the last vote in 2014. This time, it stayed in the race by banding together with smaller parties, but several BNP leaders say they are regretting that decision. With over 100 million registered voters and 300 seats in parliament, this is one of the largest national elections anywhere in the world this year. But as campaigning came to an end on Friday, opposition leaders said they had barely stirred out of their homes. “I am not even allowed to campaign, and they are threatening voters to stay away,” Khan said at his home in Dhaka earlier this week, where he was visiting an assistant hospitalized after being assaulted. In the first two days of this week, opposition workers in 88 constituencies had been attacked, Khan said. One candidate has sued police for shooting him eight times with pellet bullets while he was out seeking votes. Hasina’s Awami League, seeking a third straight term in power, has denied the allegations and blames the opposition for attacks that killed at least five of its workers and injured more than 300 in the past three weeks. In a recent interview, Awami League leader H.T. Imam handed Reuters photographs of people he called opposition “thugs” vandalizing shops, setting fire to vehicles, and burning Awami League posters in Dhaka in November. Imam also listed steps Hasina had taken since coming to power to ensure free and fair elections, including strengthening the Election Commission, introducing see-through ballot boxes and empowering the police to act against political parties’ use of money and muscle. DIVIDED ELECTION COMMISSION Yet a rift has developed in the Election Commission, with Mahbub Talukdar, one of the five commissioners, saying last week there was no level playing field. “It is not enough to hold a participatory election, it should also be free, fair and as per the law,” Talukdar said in a statement on Wednesday. His boss, Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda, has said Talukdar was lying and also rejected the opposition’s allegations of bias. He did not respond to calls from Reuters seeking further comment. Police say they have been working under the orders of the Election Commission since last month. More than 61 percent of the opposition alliance’s 287 candidates face criminal cases, compared with only around 7 percent of the ruling party’s 299, according to affidavits filed by candidates at the Election Commission that were analyzed by the Dhaka-based civil society group Shujan. Most cases against the opposition are “politically motivated”, Shujan’s Secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said. BNP says more than 8,200 leaders and activists of the opposition alliance, comprising around 20 parties, have been arrested since the election schedule was announced early last month. It added four workers had been killed and more than 12,300 injured in various assaults in that period. Sohel Rana, a spokesman for the Bangladesh police, declined to give figures of arrests or attacks on political leaders and activists, but said his department took allegations of mistakes in filing charges seriously and would take action against any officers found responsible. Street politics has always been violent in Bangladesh, which won freedom from Pakistan in 1971 under the leadership of Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Khaleda, who has served as prime minister for 10 years, is the widow of former president Ziaur Rahman. A bitter decades-long rivalry between Hasina and Khaleda - often called “the two begums”, or noblewomen - has frequently manifested itself in violence by their parties’ student and youth wings. Ataur Rahman, who chairs the bipartisan think-tank Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), said the dominance of the party in power, violence across the country, and police cases against the opposition were all concerns.

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