NEW DELHI - Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hopes to win a third consecutive term in general elections based on impressive economic growth under her decade-long rule, but her opponents accuse her of authoritarianism and eroding democracy.
The elections being held Sunday pit Hasina's Awami League party against an opposition alliance called the National Unity Front that was cobbled together three months ago by 82-year-old Kamal Hossain, a former foreign minister and lawyer. The country's main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, is in jail and banned from contesting polls.
The 71-year-old Hasina, has promised to "build a non-communal, golden Bangladesh free from hunger, poverty and illiteracy," and make the Muslim-majority nation of 160 million a middle income country by 2021.
While there is widespread agreement that the economy has raced ahead, the opposition has called conditions development without democracy. It has campaigned on a platform of doing away with laws that rights groups say give the government sweeping powers to go after dissenters and harass the media.
Security has been tightened ahead of the polls and tens of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been deployed across the country to protect the approximately 40,000 election booths.
Sunday's vote will be held after a violent campaign in which at least six people were killed. The opposition alleges that it was mainly their supporters who were victims. Opposition leader Hossain has said many of the candidates were too scared to come out after a spate of attacks on election rallies.
Ataur Rahman, professor of political science at Dhaka University, says the opposition concerns are genuine. "Most of the violence was against opposition candidates and opposition activists," he says. "They did not get adequate space to mobilize the people, and they strongly argue, and most of that is true, that they were muzzled by the government, there were so many cases against them in courts."
The opposition says more than 8,000 of its supporters have been detained since the election was announced last month and hundreds of cases brought against the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party. Its leader, Khaleda Zia, who was jailed in February on charges of corruption, says the cases against her are politically motivated.
Zia and Hasina have been the main contenders for power in the South Asian country in recent decades and are bitter political rivals. But Zia's imprisonment has weakened the opposition in a country where political leaders traditionally rally supporters at large political gatherings. The leader of the opposition alliance, Hossain, is not standing for a seat in parliament, making it unclear who is their prime ministerial candidate.
On the other hand, political analysts, say Hasina has consolidated power and strengthened her hold on state institutions since 2014, when Zia boycotted the polls. "There was virtually no opposition in parliament, there was no accountability in that sense," says Ataur Rahman.
Hasina's Awami League is brushing aside criticism of undermining democracy and is focusing on the economic progress witnessed in recent years to rally voters. Per capita incomes have tripled since 2009. The $ 30 billion garment industry that sustains most jobs, is booming. Bangladesh has witnessed average growth of over 6 per cent in the past decade, development indices such as health have improved and the country has won praise from the World Bank for reducing extreme poverty.
The one concern say some economists is that income inequality has increased. "Growth has been there, but not for everybody proportionately. So that is a major issue," according to Debapriya Bhattacharya at Dhaka's Center for Policy Dialogue.
Most political analysts expect Hasina to win another term in power but caution that much will depend on voter turnout low voter participation is expected to favor Hasina and a higher turnout the opposition. More than 100 million people are eligible to vote.
Meanwhile some concerns have been expressed about the fairness of the poll. Human Rights Watch, in a report last week, said a "repressive political environment in Bangladesh is undermining the credibility of the process."
Opposition leader Hossain has urged supporters who might be intimidated by the violence during the campaign to come out to vote. "My appeal to the people: Be brave, this is our right," he said.