Dhaka, Bangladesh – As election campaigning draws to a close, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged Bengalis to vote for the “boat” – a symbol of her ruling party that has dominated Bangladesh‘s political scene for the past decade.
Loudspeakers have been blurting out pro-government campaign songs to woo voters, while the streets of Dhaka have been emblazoned with posters of Hasina’s Awami League (AL) party and the Grand Alliance coalition.
In contrast, the opposition has remained largely silent ahead of Sunday’s elections, citing intimidation and threat of arrest by law enforcement agencies.
On Friday, the streets were comparatively quieter as the parties ended their near month-long bitter campaign marred by violence.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose leader Khaleda Zia was jailed in February for corruption, said thousands of supporters have been arrested ahead of the poll, and scores of its candidates have been attacked.
In order to oust Hasina, the BNP has joined forces with Kamal Hossain, a leading lawyer who was previously a close ally of Hasina’s father, also Bangladesh’s founding president.
Critics, including Hossain, have accused Hasina, who is seeking office for a third consecutive term, of authoritarian rule, noting increased curbs on press freedom.
But Hasina, who wrapped up her campaign with a warning to voters to “remain alert to subversive activity of the BNP and its cohorts”, has promoted a different narrative – Bangladesh’s impressive economic growth in the past decade under her rule.
GDP has grown, but if you look at the inequality, it has intensified according to credible studies and data
Asif Nazrul, professor of law at University of Dhaka
‘From darkness to prosperity’
Since she took power in 2008, Bangladesh’s per capital income has seen a three fold increase. The country’s GDP stood at $250bn in 2017, according to the IMF, and last year clocked a growth rate of 7.28 percent.
“I promise to build a more beautiful future by learning from the past. We will build a non-communal golden Bangladesh free from hunger, poverty and illiteracy as cherished by Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,” Hasina said at the launch of her party manifesto two weeks ago.
The AL’s manifesto promises to make Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries with a population of 160 million, a middle-income nation by 2021 and triple its current per capita income of $1,750 in the next decade.
The garment industry has emerged as one of the main pillars of the economy, providing jobs to 4.5 million people. It makes up 14 percent of the GDP and nearly 80 per cent of the country’s exports worth $35bn.
Nearly 2.5 million Bangladeshi expatriates send home about $15bn annually in remittance.
The South Asian nation has performed well on most human development index indicators by controlling its population growth, improving infant mortality drastically that has resulted into higher life expectancy, which at 72 years, has surpassed those of India and Pakistan.
Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a senior AL leader, said there has been development in every sector under Hasina.
“Sheikh Hasina brought the country out of darkness to prosperity,” AL Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif said. “The country has totally transformed in the last 10 years.”
Khondokar Ibrahim Khaled, an economist, acknowledged the high growth rate, but said much more was needed remained to develop the banking sector, which he said has suffered from non-performing loans.
“The devastating situation in the banking sector was not properly dealt with. Even after 80 percent bad loan at the Basic Bank no action was taken. There are bad loans still in government banks. This was simply looting,” Khaled said.
Development over democracy
Entrepreneurs have lauded the government for its pro-business policies but some lamented the slow pace of infrastructure.
Syed Almas Kabir, president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), the biggest umbrella organisation representing the country’s ICT sector, said “the government has been sincere about supporting local businesses”.
But many critics and opposition leaders have raised their concerns at “inequitable growth” that they say has favoured the country’s wealthy class.
Asif Nazrul, professor of law at University of Dhaka, says that inequality has risen in the last decade.
“It is true that the GDP has grown. But if you look at the inequality, it has intensified according to credible studies and data,” the Dhaka professor said.
Professor Nazrul said the ruling party is promising “development minus democracy”.
“If you read our constitution and the history of our liberation movement, does it say anywhere: ‘you can enjoy fruits of development if you are ready to sacrifice your democratic rights’.”
“Who has given the government the right to proclaim that ‘we have given you development, do not bother about democracy’.”
A restaurant owner in Dhaka’s Kawran Bazaar area echoed that sentiment, saying his “business has not grown much, in the last five years”.
The 30-year-old, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera: “I am not happy with the government … Many supporters of the ruling party visit my restaurant and ask us to vote for them. I can’t tell you which party I am going to vote for.”
‘No one can survive wrath of ruling party’
Mouri Huq (not her real name), 31, who works in the education sector and supports BNP, described Hasina’s decade-long rule as “a long nightmare”.
“No one could survive the wrath of the ruling party if they had a different political position than the government. I can cite so many examples of this from my experience,” she said.
“The enforced disappearances left the families of the victims wondering if their loved ones are alive or dead. A situation like that never existed before.”
Many critics and opposition supporters Al Jazeera spoke to said they feared expressing their opinions in the public.
Editors have adopted self-censorship as government passed a Digital Security Act that has been dubbed as “draconian” by rights groups. Under the law passed in September, police officials can search or arrest anyone without a warrant.
The arrest of renowned photographer Shahidul Alam in August for expressing his opinion against the government caused an outcry. He is since out on bail but if he is convicted under the ICT law, he might face up to 14 years in jail.
The opposition, which has accused Hasina muzzling press freedom, has pledged to strike down the media laws passed by the government if it comes to power.
But Asaduzzaman Noor, the minister of culture, rejected the charges against Hasina as “nothing but blame-game”.
“She belongs to the people, she belongs to the soil, and she is the daughter of the father of the nation,” said the 72-year-old actor-turned leader.
“Her commitment is to improve the quality of lives of people of Bangladesh. To achieve that, she has to fight against many odds, but some people think she is authoritarian, but it’s not so,” he added.
“She is fighting for the people, not for the vested interests.”