The head of Bangladesh’s Election Commission insisted Friday that the Dec. 30 general election would be free and fair as the campaign deadline for Sunday’s vote expired amid reports of ongoing political violence on all sides.
Meanwhile, criticism and statements of concern over whether the polls would unfold in an open and non-hostile atmosphere poured in from abroad, with just hours to go before the South Asian nation of 160 million people holds its first contested election in a decade.
“A huge number of candidates are taking part in this election … and the voters will cast their votes in a free, fair and festive atmosphere,” embattled election chief K.M. Nurul Huda said as the campaigning blackout period began, according to the state-run BSS news service.
Earlier this week opposition parties walked out of a meeting with him, accusing him of bias toward the ruling Awami League, whose leader, Sheikh Hasina, is seeking a record fourth term as prime minister amid widespread criticism that she has grown authoritarian.
Her longtime rival, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) chief Khaleda Zia, has been sidelined from the race because she is serving a prison sentence on corruption-related convictions.
On Friday, BNP Senior Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told reporters in Dhaka that party leaders, candidates and activists had been targeted in nearly 2,900 attacks by Awami supporters since polls were first announced Nov. 8.
“The armed Awami League men have been parading in the villages,” Rizvi said, adding that intimidation and violence had prevented opposition politicians from campaigning.
“They are not permitted to work freely. Everything has been happening with instructions from the prime minister and under the supervision of the chief election commissioner,” Rizvi alleged.
Eight BNP supporters have been killed in political violence during the run-up to the polls, according to Agence France-Presse, which cited opposition officials.
The Awami League shot back, alleging that 445 of its members had been attacked and nine of them killed, party official Jahangir Kabir Nanak Nanak told reporters Friday.
But not all of the reports have been confirmed by police.
On Friday, police in northeastern Sylhet said BNP followers had killed an Awami activist, bringing to three the number of ruling party supporters killed since Nov. 8, AFP reported.
Also Friday, a local NGO reported that 972 violent political incidents had occurred between Dec. 1 and 25, with most of them targeting the opposition.
At least 2,623 opposition and 539 ruling party members, 28 police personnel and 28 journalists were injured in the incidents, the Human Rights Support Society (HRSS) said.
Asked to respond, Helal Uddin Ahmad, the secretary of the election commission, told BenarNews, “We have asked the police and other law enforcers to investigate all the allegations of violence and let us know.”
Hasina, 71, the daughter of Bangladesh’s assassinated founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is facing an opposition front led by Kamal Hossain, 84, her father’s former protégé who drafted Bangladesh’s first constitution at the nation’s birth in the early 1970s.
Hossain spearheads the National Unity Front but he is not vying for any seats in the election.
On Thursday, the last official full day of campaigning, he told reporters in Dhaka that a “combing operation” had targeted NUF supporters nationwide and that the government, courts, police and other law enforcement officials were behind the sweep.
“We achieved victory on Dec. 16 . In the same way, we will gain another victory on Dec. 30,” Hossain said as he urged people to throng to polling centers on Sunday.
Hasina, for her part, called on Awami supporters to “remain careful about any subversive activity of BNP and their cohorts.”
“We want every political party to contest in the election. It’s their right and people will give vote according to their choice . . . so every political party should conduct their election campaign freely and fairly,” Hasina said Thursday, according to BSS.
Bangladesh has faced growing international scrutiny in the final days before its 11th general election.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all stakeholders in Bangladesh’s election “to ensure an environment free of violence, intimidation and coercion before, during and after the elections.”
Electoral observers and civil society groups “should be fully supported to play their role” in making Bangladeshis feel safe about voting, he added.
The same day, the new U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh said he had met with the chief election commissioner and the rest of the commission because the United States was concerned “by the high level of campaign violence over the last two weeks.”
“All parties have been victims of violence, including minorities and female candidates. However, it appears opposition party candidates have borne the brunt of most violence,” Ambassador Earl Miller said in a statement issued by the embassy.
On Friday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized Bangladesh for having a “totalitarian-style grip” on media reporting on the election. The free press watchdog deplored what it described as attacks by 30 masked individuals that left 12 journalists from two Bangladeshi news outlets injured.
“This latest episode of extreme brutality against journalists has already destroyed the credibility of the results of Sunday’s elections,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.
The Paris-based group also slammed an order issued by Bangladesh’s telecommunication regulatory agency on Thursday that instructed mobile phone and internet service providers to reduce broadband speeds to 2G from 4G. RSF said this was an attempt by regulators to tightly control reporting around the election.
“This will hit media coverage of the elections badly,” RSF quoted Elias Hossain, president of Dhaka Reports Unity, as saying.
“Online news portals and media with Facebook pages will be severely affected, and live-streaming on social media will be impossible.”