[An election update by Asif Saleh, the founder of the human rights group Drishtipat. For a solid backgrounder on the events leading up to this much-delayed election, read Asif's earlier post]
After much uncertainty, the election in Bangladesh finally took place today. Upon the lifting of the state of emergency by the two-year old caretaker government, the last two weeks saw frantic campaigning by two of the main alliances: the secular one run by the Awami League and the Islamic-right coalition of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). In a stunning setback for the government, the High Court allowed some of the politicians convicted during the emergency rule to contest the election, overruling the Election Commission. However, the Election commission did manage to keep some reforms intact, making it possible to conduct a much cleaner election.
Many observers agreed that until two weeks ago, it was the Awami League alliance's election to lose (the alliance comprises 14 parties). But Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister and current BNP head, ran a tireless campaign, darting around country almost 'round the clock and managing to close in. In terms of message, though, BNP ran a much more negative campaign based on fear mongering. Their key selling points were that Islam and the country's independence will be in danger if the Awami League is voted to power.
On the other hand, another former prime minister, Awami League's Sheikh Hasina, focused on the young voters--a huge number of whom are voting for the first time--and talked about a vision for 2021. In the absence of good pre-election polling, no one is sure which message is connecting more with average voters. But Khaleda Zia seemed to have brought back home a lot of the formerly-disgruntled BNP supporters, turned off by her son, by apologizing to the public right before the election and articulately telling the narrative of the sufferings on her family in the past one year under emergency.
As for the army, they are standing back for the time being. But the top-level Generals, fearing retribution, will be breathing easier if AL comes to power, even though Khaleda has specifically said that there will be no revenge against them if BNP comes to power.
The big question of the day seems to be whether Khaleda Zia gained enough grounds to turn around the election or if Awami League will be able to come back to power after 12 years in the wilderness. It's going to be a long night tonight. I will be liveblogging at http://unheardvoice.net/blog. Stay tuned.
- The Independent, UK: "'Battling begums' face off as Bangladesh goes to polls"
- Washington Post: "Strong turnout for peaceful Bangladesh election"
- New Age, Bangladesh: "Nation goes to polls today"
- BBC: "Sense of joy at Bangladesh polls"
- Associated Press: "Bangladeshis vote for 1st time in 7 years"
- Reuters India: "Q&A: Why are Bangladesh's elections important?"
- Financial Express, Bangladesh: "Dhaka stocks rise sharply as investors upbeat about polls"
- The Daily Star: "Voting ends peacefully" - 70 to 70 percent turnout estimated