x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bangladeshis vote for a change

Campaigning for elections hailed as country's return to democracy was marred by violence but real test lies in parties accepting results.

Long queues formed as local citizens began to vote at the country's 35,000 heavily guarded polling stations. Bangladesh went to the polls under tight security in the first elections since 2001.
Long queues formed as local citizens began to vote at the country's 35,000 heavily guarded polling stations. Bangladesh went to the polls under tight security in the first elections since 2001.

DHAKA // Mohammed Sakayet Ullah emerged from the polling booth wearing a smile and an ink stain on his left thumb. Arriving at a polling station in Dhaka's university campus at 7am yesterday, even before the polls opened, he stood for hours in a serpentine queue to cast his vote for a landmark election that is being hailed by civil rights groups as Bangladesh's return to democracy. "The people want change," said Mr Ullah, a 26-year-old postgraduate student. "I am pinning my hopes on these elections for the future of Bangladesh." The elections were due to take place in Jan 2007, but were suspending after months of political turbulence. For the past two years, Bangladesh was ruled by an army-backed caretaker government under an emergency law that curbed fundamental rights.

The polls were marred by violence in the south-west where 18 people were injured in clashes between supporters of rival candidates. The United News of Bangladesh agency reported that the fighting broke out in towns in Madaripur district, 72 kilometres south-west of the capital of Dhaka. Authorities had deployed 650,000 police officers and soldiers across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud in the country. In the run-up to the elections, Dhaka's streets were festooned with campaign flyers dangling from ropes or power cables. At stake are 300 parliamentary seats that 1,500 candidates are vying for. There are 39 political parties contesting elections, but like every previous election, the race is expected to boil down to a battle between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, two former prime ministers and staunch political rivals, often portrayed as the "battling begums" by the local media. Sheikh Hasina, who leads the Awami League and forged a 14-party coalition - the Grand Alliance - which swept municipal elections in August, is ahead in the race, according to a poll by the Daily Star newspaper.

Ms Zia, from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has formed a coalition with three other parties. Despite the violence, the real test, say analysts, will be if both sides accept election results once they are out. Both leaders, who each face corruption charges, alternated leadership in the country between 1991 and 2006. When one assumed office, the political campaigners from the other camp took to the streets, engaging in strikes that left the country paralysed and scared away foreign investors from this impoverished country of 144 million. After Ms Zia's last stint in power ended in 2006, it handed over power to a caretaker government to organise elections, as is the norm. But her archrival, Sheikh Hasina, accused her of loading up the caretaker government with her supporters to manipulate the vote. Campaigners from both sides took to the streets in months of fatal clashes until a military-backed government seized control in Jan 2007. There is some fear that with these elections, Bangladesh might see the return of the same vicious, graft-ridden politics, and candidates with criminal backgrounds might return to the political fray. Bangladesh's Election Commission, which has drawn up a new list of 81 million registered voters for this election, has purged 11 million fake voters from the roll. And the Anti-Corruption Commission said it was determined to prosecute the politicians who have made Bangladesh infamous for being the most corrupt country on earth. Eight campaigners from Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party that is a coalition partner of the BNP, were arrested yesterday morning on "vote buying" charges in a subdistrict called Shathia. The BNP strongly refuted the charges. "At least under the caretaker government in the last two years, safety and security was a given," said Mohammed Amin, 29, who owns a cosmetics store in Chawk Bazar, a crumbling market in Lalbagh in the old town of Dhaka. "I could walk down the street without worrying about pickpockets, chain snatchers and other criminals." A candidate standing in Mr Amin's constituency, Naseeruddin Ahmed Pintu, a former BNP lawmaker, was released a few days ago after being arrested last year on charges of murder and theft. "I don't want criminals to rule over my country," he said. "I expect simple things - prices of food commodities to come down; I want good, corruption-free governance, and most importantly, security for my family." Mr Amin's views are representative of millions of Bangladeshis. About 40 per cent of the country's population languishes below the poverty line. But early yesterday morning, Mr Amin ambled through the narrow, grimy lanes of Lalbagh to the polling station, convinced that he did not want a caretaker government that was not elected by the public. "We don't want a non-representative government," he said. "The most significant and heartening lesson from the two years of emergency rule is that the people of Bangladesh prefer democracy, however flawed, and an elected government to rule them, however inept," said Mahfuz Anam, the editor-publisher of the Daily Star newspaper. achopra@thenational.ae