Souvenirs with pictures of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, front, and others are put up for sale at a roadside shop ahead of the general elections in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.
Souvenirs with pictures of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, front, and others are put up for sale at a roadside shop ahead of the general elections in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.

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.

Supporters of Bangladesh Awami League march along a street as they take part in a rally ahead of Dec. 30 general election vote, in Dhaka, Dec. 27, 2018.
Weakened Bangladesh Opposition Hopes for Change in Sunday's Election
Campaigning for Bangladesh's general election at the weekend ended on Friday after weeks of violence, mainly against workers and officials from an opposition alliance, that has been criticized by the United States and others.Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League is seeking its third straight term in Sunday's election against the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the last vote in 2014.The Awami League is promoting its economic record over the past decade but the…

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."

FILE - Bangladeshi policemen stand guard on a road near a court during a verdict against opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 8, 2018.
US, UN Raise Concerns Over Violence Ahead of Bangladesh Election
The United States and the United Nations on Thursday raised concerns over the looming general election in Bangladesh as the opposition said hundreds more activists had been arrested and attacked.The South Asian nation's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina used the last full day of campaigning to call for a record fourth term from Sunday's vote.The opposition, whose main leader Khaleda Zia is in jail, said the election would not be free and fair.

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.

Bangladeshi elections officials gather to collect
Bangladeshi elections officials gather to collect voting material at a distribution center on the eve of the general elections in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018.

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.  

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