DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladeshis vote in a general election on Sunday with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking a third straight term in a face-off against a main opposition party whose leader is in jail on what she says were trumped up charges.
A win for Hasina’s Awami League party is widely expected.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the last election in 2014, has been hobbled this time by the absence of its leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 74, who was jailed in February on corruption charges her party says were politically motivated.
In addition, opposition workers say they have faced violent attacks and intimidation, including shootings and arrests, that have stunted their ability to campaign.
The ruling party denies responsibility for any such action.
It is brimming with confidence that its economic record will sweep it to election victory.
“The reason people of Bangladesh support the Awami League is very, very simple: development and economic improvement,” Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, told Reuters in an interview in the prime minister’s official residence on the eve of the vote.
“And not just economic, social as well. The lives of the common Bangladeshi have improved in every, every sector.”
Annual growth in the Muslim-majority country of 165 million people rose to 7.8 percent in the 2017/18 financial year that ended on June 30, compared with 5.1 percent when Hasina took over in 2008/09.
Over the same period, annual sales of its economic mainstay, the garment industry, nearly trebled, with garment exports worth $30.6 billion in 2017/18, making up 83.5 percent of total exports.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is the world’s second biggest after China’s.
The BNP is fighting the election as part of an opposition alliance stitched together three months ago.
Khaleda’s son, Tarique Rahman, who is also acting BNP chief, urged women voters to back the opposition and help get his mother out of jail. Women make up nearly half of the country’s 100 million voters.
“This is my appeal to every mother, every woman in Bangladesh: only you can get her reunited with her family through the collective power of each of your votes,” Rahman said in a message posted on social media.
Rahman is based in London and faces imprisonment if he returns home after a court in October sentenced him to life in jail over a plot to assassinate Hasina in 2004, when she was in the opposition. He denies any such plot.
If Hasina retains power, one of her first jobs will be to address the demands of garment workers for higher minimum wages.
Many owners of garment factories, which supply companies such as Zara-owner Inditex (ITX.MC) and Sweden’s H&M (HMb.ST), back the ruling party.
While Hasina has been lauded internationally for providing refuge to Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar, her government is accused of suppressing dissent and jailing critics at home.
The United States has been urging Bangladesh to ensure the vote is free and fair. It said opposition party candidates “have borne the brunt of most violence” in recent weeks.
“Think before you act violently!” the U.S. embassy said on Twitter.
“Your country depends on it.”
The vote count will begin on Sunday evening and news channels are expected to call the result early on Monday.
Hasina’s son, Wazed, said he was so sure of victory, he was planning to leave for a private visit to the United States just after the voting closes on Sunday.
“I’m so confident about the result that I am flying out tomorrow,” he said.
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