Dhaka: The countdown to the national election began in Bangladesh on Friday as campaigning ended amid complaints of clashes and inequality in the parliamentary contest to be held on Sunday.
More than 100 million voters will cast their ballots to elect the next Bangladesh government on December 30.
Sheikh Hasina, 71, of the ruling Awami League was favoured to remain the Prime Minister after a bloody election campaign that opposition activists described as the most stifled in the 47 years since her father became the country’s first leader, reports say.
If Hasina wins, it would be a record third consecutive term to a Prime Minister who has overseen one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but whose government is accused of human rights abuses.
Scores of opposition figures including Hasina’s major rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were jailed or disappeared in the months leading to the election. International election monitors and press freedom groups complained of unnecessary delays in issuing visas.
The previous election held in 2014, which saw the Awami League return for a second consecutive term, was boycotted by the then BNP-led opposition alliance.
Zia was recently sent to prison for 12 years on corruption charges and her son, Tarique Rahman, was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in October for a plot to assassinate Hasina. Rahman lives in exile in London.
The Awami League brought an estimated 300,000 cases against the major opposition party in the run up to the election.
“The police harassment of opposition activists has reached unprecedented levels,” Kamal Hossain, a human rights lawyer who is serving as the candidate of the joint opposition, told the Guardian newspaper.
He said around 70 candidates from an alliance of opposition parties were too afraid to campaign in their constituencies after a spate of attacks on rallies and party offices by armed thugs.
On Sunday, voting will be held in 299 constituencies across Bangladesh from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are 300 seats in Parliament. More than 1,800 candidates, including independents and members of 39 registered parties, are competing in the election.
The Bangladesh Army has been deployed to join civil law enforcing agencies to tighten security during the polls.
The Election Commission said all measures to ensure peaceful voting have been taken. “We are fully prepared. There is a bit of heat because of so many competing parties but there is no cause for worry, said Election Commissioner Shahadat Chowdhury.
Bangladesh authorities also severely restricted Internet services across the country on Thursday in an effort to fight “propaganda” ahead of the election. The services resumed on Friday morning after a 10-hour blackout, but could be suspended again, officials said.
There were reports that Facebook had taken down 15 pages that it said were spreading pro-Hasina fake news in the run up to the poll.
Twitter said it had suspended 15 accounts in Bangladesh, most with fewer than 50 followers, “for engaging in coordinated platform manipulation”.