Full campaigning began last week with Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) taking on the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina.
Both women are former prime ministers; both faced corruption allegations and both were released on bail in deals with the government to ensure their parties’ participation in the elections.
President Iajuddin Ahmed had declared a state of emergency on 11 January 2007 amid political tensions. This stopped the election process in its track and put civil and political rights in limbo.
Afterwards the government launched a crackdown on political corruption, a move which led to the detention of at least 200 politicians, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.
Early yesterday, Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed said that the “Bangladesh army [. . .] is not eager to assume a political role” but rather would “like to see Bangladesh achieve a democratic government through a fair and credible election.
However, some analysts are less sanguine than the general, concerned about the army’s increasing importance in society and its growing closeness to Islamic fundamentalism.
When the caretaker government took over on 11 January 2007, it set out to remove the coalition led by the BNP (a right-of-centre party allied with two Islamic parties) that had come to power through clear electoral fraud, a situation which would have alienated the population and discredited the country at the international level.
At the same time it sought to prevent a victory of the left-of-centre coalition led by the Awami League (in alliance with small Marxist parties), profiting from popular backlash against BNP shenanigans.
The plan was to clean up the BNP by removing its most corrupt members (including Khaleda Zia’s son, Tareque), disrupt the life of the Awami League, organise new elections and bring back to power a more “presentable” BNP.
Today after only a year in prison and many concessions by the courts Khaleda Zia is free. Her son, the BNP’s lightening rod for corruption, is also free after 18 months in prison and abroad for medical treatment after pledging not to come back for three years. The BNP’s Islamic allies have not been touched.
By contrast, Awami League’s president Sheikh Hasina was freed after a few months but charges are still pending against her. After her release she travelled to the United States for ear treatment and returned to Bangladesh on 6 November.
She launched her campaign on 11 December by praying at the shrines of Muslim saints in the north-eastern city of Sylhet.
Her rival Khaleda Zia, who leads a four-party alliance that includes Jamaat-e-Islami, began her campaign the next day.
The Awami League is allied instead with a small party, the Jatiya Party, of former President Hossain Mohammed Ershad.
The caretaker government promised that these elections will the most honest possible.
The Election Commission said that it had removed the names of more than 1.2 million fake voters off the electoral roll.