DHAKA, Bangladesh – When the founding leader of Bangladesh, father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was assassinated in 1975 after helping achieve independence from Pakistan, then-Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain abandoned a state visit in Europe to rush to her side.
Now Hossain, 82, is helming a popular opposition against Hasina that aims to prevent his former Awami League party from maintaining its hold on Bangladesh in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
“There should be a very decisive victory for the opposition if it’s free and fair,” Hossain said in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press. “If there is some kind of a decision in favor of the present government, I can assure you that it will not be a free and fair election.”
A respected Oxford-educated lawyer, Hossain emerged as an improbable opposition leader after a court disqualified Hasina’s chief rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, because she is serving a 17-year sentence for corruption.
Although Zia is in solitary confinement in a colonial-era jail, she is not alone: More than 15,000 opposition party activists and critics have been arrested since November, the vice chairman of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party said Saturday. At least nine people have been killed in campaign-related skirmishes, the party said.
“The urge for power can make someone who’s human into something less than human,” Hossain said of Hasina.
Hossain supported Hasina as part of a grand coalition in 2008 elections, when the Awami League and its allies secured 270 of the 300 seats in Bangladesh’s Parliament.
But in 2014, Zia and the BNP boycotted the polls, leaving more than half of the parliamentary seats uncontested. Voter turnout in the country of 160 million was a dismal 22 percent, and the Awami League’s landslide victory was met with violent protests that left at least 22 people dead.
Hossain is among those who see that election as illegitimate. He said the government since then has been characterized by “unprecedented corruption” and “political patronage of the crudest kind.” He said Hasina — the daughter of a revolutionary fighter and his former benefactor — has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies.
The ruling party has challenged that narrative by focusing on Bangladesh’s plaudits by the World Bank and others as a development success story. Its economy grew nearly 8 percent this year on greater agricultural production and the South Asian country’s booming garments exports industry, the second-largest in the world after China.
The Awami League says its supporters also have been targeted during the run-up to the vote, alleging in a statement Saturday that opposition activists had killed six of their party leaders and injured hundreds more in bomb and arson attacks.
Hasina implored her supporters to stay at polling stations Sunday until the votes had been counted.
“I am alerting all, don’t get confused even if the BNP announces that they are boycotting the election,” Hasina said while visiting a party leader injured in campaign violence at a military-run hospital in Dhaka.
“I want to say, maybe the BNP would say at one point of the election that they are withdrawing from the race, we will not compete. Don’t trust them. It could be a ploy,” she said.
Hossain, too, said he is telling his supporters to stay at voting centers — even at the risk of violence.
“We are saying very strongly … whatever we do, let us stick it out, however ugly,” he said.