Dhaka: Bangladesh stepped up security with thousands of army troops patrolling the streets along with paramilitary forces and police as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeks a record fourth term in Sunday’s general elections.
Over 600,000 security personnel including several thousand soldiers and paramilitary border guards have been deployed across the country to help conduct the election in which 10.41 crore people are eligible to vote.
Security agencies have been asked to keep an extra vigil on religious minority communities as media reports said at least three Hindu households were set on fire by miscreants between December 16 and 26, Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator also ordered the country’s mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday “to prevent the spread of rumours” that could trigger unrest during the elections, the 11th since Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971.
According to the Election Commission, 1,848 candidates are contesting for 299 out of 300 Parliament seats.
The polls will be held at 40,183 polling stations. Thirteen people have been killed and thousands injured in clashes between supporters of Hasina’s ruling Awami League and activists of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Hasina, who is seeking to return to power for a third consecutive time, on Saturday feared the opposition could boycott polls in the middle of voting as part of a “political trick” to evade a “humiliating defeat”.
“I want to caution all about the character of (main opposition) BNP…they may say in the middle (of the elections) that we are boycotting the polls,” she said. “In that case (opposition boycott) I will ask our candidates and other contenders to continue polls until the voting is ended,” Hasina, 71, said.
The premier’s comments came as the main opposition BNP is contesting the polls visibly in a dilapidated state in the absence of jailed party chief Zia, 73, and her fugitive son Tarique Rahman who is the acting party chief.
Zia, serving a 10-year prison term on graft charges, has been barred from contesting the polls while Rahman is living in London ostensibly to evade the law as a court has sentenced him to life imprisonment for masterminding a grenade attack on a rally in 2004 that killed 24 Awami League leaders and activists.
The BNP has stayed out of the parliamentary process since 2014 when it boycotted the general election over its demands for a poll-time non-party government. It has returned to parliamentary politics as part of a new alliance – National Unity Front (NUF) – that was cobbled together three months ago with eminent lawyer Kamal Hossain as its convener.
But the party is in a state of disarray in the absence of its two top leaders. Election Commission last week allowed hardline Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, a crucial ally of BNP, to contest the general elections, two months after it scraped the fundamentalist party’s registration.
BNP earlier accused the election commission of being bias during the electoral campaign, a charge rejected by Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda.
Reacting on Hasina’s remarks, BNP’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said “There is no dispute in our party about taking part in the polls.”
“But what we see, there is no festive mood anywhere and rather a sense of fright is prevailing across the country due to government intimidation,” he said.
Chief Election Commissioner Huda in a nationwide address on Saturday acknowledged a media report about arrests of some polling agents of BNP candidates and called such action “unwanted.”
“Unless someone is wanted under certain case, police must not arrest anyone…maintain utmost neutrality in discharging your duties,” he said.
The opposition parties have alleged that thousands of its leaders and activists have been arrested to weaken them.
The Rapid Action Battalion or RAB on Friday night arrested eight people for circulating “provocative videos and rumours” on social media relating to parliamentary election. Video-making materials, laptops and mobile phones were seized from the detainees, officials said.
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