Dhaka: More than 100 foreign observers, including three from India, reached Dhaka on Friday to monitor Sunday’s general election in Bangladesh, boycotted by the main Opposition party, which has called for a 48-hour nationwide general strike.
Foreign Ministry officials said a three-member delegation from the Election Commission of India reached Dhaka on Friday while 122 others from different countries were set to be here ahead of the January 7 polls, which the United Nations said would watch closely.
“So far, 60 foreign observers or experts have arrived here, and all together, 127 have scheduled to come. Besides, 73 foreign journalists have received accreditations, and among them, 17 have already arrived,” Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told reporters late Thursday.
He said the observers will monitor the polls in the capital, Dhaka, and elsewhere in the country.
“But we have suggested to them that they choose the destinations having air connectivity (for convenience),” the foreign secretary said. The Commonwealth has sent a 17-member team, the largest among foreign observers.
The other poll observers included members from the European Union, the Commonwealth, the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), and other reputable organisations.
A United Nations spokesperson on Thursday said the UN was “watching the (polls) process closely, and we hope that all the elections happen in a transparent and organised manner” but said the global body did not have any comment on the election boycott by the Opposition.
The daylong voting will start simultaneously in 299 parliamentary constituencies across Bangladesh on Sunday. Election in one constituency was postponed after an independent candidate died of natural causes.
Some 1,519 candidates from 27 political parties are contesting in the election. Besides, there are 436 independent candidates.
A total of 119.6 million registered voters are eligible to vote at Sunday’s polls in more than 42,000 polling stations, according to the election commission.
The election commission said it expected the results to start flowing from early on January 8.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League is expected to win for a straight fourth time as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former premier Khaleda Zia, who is effectively under house arrest as a convict of graft charges, boycotted the polls.
The polls, however, are contested by 27 political parties, including the parliamentary opposition Jatiya Party (JAPA). The rest are members of the ruling Awami League-led coalition, which experts dub as “satellite parties.”
As part of its vote boycott campaign, BNP on Thursday called a 48-hour countrywide general strike from 6 am on January 6 to 6 am on January 8 as the party has been claiming no election under the incumbent government would be fair and credible.
BNP spokesman Ruhul Kabir Rizvi announced the stoppage, saying it was aimed to press home their demands for “resignation of the illegal government, establishment of a non-party neutral government and release of all party leaders and activists from prison”.
Bangladesh deployed Army troops across the country two days ago “in aid of civil administration” to maintain peace and order during the voting.
But according to media reports, unidentified people carried homemade bomb and arson attacks in empty polling centres in four out of 64 administrative districts, while BNP activists clashed with police in another district, leaving five people wounded on Friday.
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal late on Thursday joined a meeting with foreign ambassadors and diplomats, who declined to talk to the media.
Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) said the country is at a critical juncture.
“Bangladesh is at a critical juncture. The once vibrant, if imperfect democracy will soon hold a third election without a credible alternative to the incumbent government,” it said in a recent report.
The think tank said while it was now too late to delay the January election, the Awami League and BNP should work after the vote to de-escalate the country’s political tensions, including through concessions by both sides.
Political science professor and analyst Harunur Rashid said he feared Bangladesh might need to wait for an indefinite period to witness a congenial political atmosphere because of the highly conflicting nature between the two major parties.
Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Kader on Friday said there was no perfect democracy anywhere in the world, but BNP’s participation could have made the upcoming elections more competitive.
Emerging from a meeting with the Commonwealth Observer Group, Kader said, “They have agreed with us that nowhere in the world there is a cent per cent or perfect democracy”.
He said an unprecedented “mass tide” has been created in favour of the party across the country ahead of the elections.
Hoping that the 12th national elections would be held in a free, fair, and peaceful manner, he said the election means a festival of democracy to the people of Bangladesh, and this time it is no exception.
“Ignoring the severe cold, the people have welcomed the election and taken part in the polls campaign. A mass tide has been created across the country in favour of the boat (the Awami Party’s election symbol),” Kader said.
He commented on the BNP’s general strike on election day and said it is now an “obsolete tool” in Bangladesh’s politics.
BNP boycotted the 2014 election but joined the one in 2018, which party leaders later said was a mistake, alleging the voting was marred with widespread rigging and intimidation.
BNP’s boycott announcement, however, initially posed a challenge to Hasina on the legitimacy of the January 7 polls as JAPA also expressed its reluctance to join the fray but agreed to participate as the ruling party decided to spare them 26 seats, withdrawing their candidates.
Awami League also left six seats to its partners in the 14-party ruling alliance while Hasina encouraged independent and rebel candidates to contest to make the polling participatory while the ruling party was carrying out a campaign for high voter turnouts.
Senior BNP leader Abdul Moyeen Khan on Friday called the government efforts “childish”, proving its “political bankruptcy”.
Analysts and watchdogs, however, said the country of 170 million was heading for virtual one-party rule, while many voters said they found no charm in voting this time as the polling was set to reelect the incumbent government.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth and the Indian election monitoring officials have visited the Media Centre opened for the journalists at the Pan Pacific Sonargoan Hotel in Dhaka.
The Press Information Department (PID) runs the centre to provide logistical support to local and foreign journalists for the 12th national parliamentary election to be held on Sunday.
Director General (Media) of Election Commission of India B Narayanan and Adviser and Head of Governance and Peace of Electoral Support Section of Commonwealth Secretariat Linford Andrews visited the Centre on Friday, said PID.
They interacted with the PID officials during the visit.
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal on Thursday said: “There will be modern facilities available for representatives of domestic and foreign media who will come, stay, and try to collect information.”
Journalists will be crucial in highlighting the electoral process’s transparency and visibility, he said.