Voting in Barisal, Sylhet and Rajshahi city corporations begins this morning with all the mayoral candidates except for the ones from the Awami League casting doubts about fair polls amid arrests and harassment of their supporters.
The AL-nominated mayoral hopefuls, however, said a festive mood prevailed in the cities, and the voters would elect whoever they deem fit for the posts.
Polling opens at 8:00am in 395 centres of the three cities with around nine lakh voters. It will continue till 4:00pm without any break. Voting materials were sent to all the polling stations yesterday. 1Pa
A huge number of law enforcers and BGB personnel were deployed in the city corporations to maintain law and order.
The elections appear to be a major challenge for both the AL and the BNP.
The AL seeks to secure the mayoral posts in the three cities following its candidates' landslide victory in Khulna and Gazipur recently.
On the other hand, the BNP wants to retain the mayoral posts in the three cities.
In the 2013 polls in Barisal, Sylhet and Rajshahi, BNP-backed candidates won all the three mayoral posts several months before the 2014 national elections.
Today's elections in the three cities have become the centre of attention in politics after Khulna and Gazipur city polls, held on May 15 and June 26, were marred by violence and ballot stuffing.
The polls are a challenge for the Election Commission, which drew a lot of flak over its role in the Khulna and Gazipur polls.
BNP leaders have alleged that the AL might resort to “vote rigging” in today's elections like it did in the Khulna and Gazipur polls.
The BNP candidates' polling agents had been driven out of all the polling centres in the two city elections, they claimed.
Days before those elections, BNP leaders and activists had been picked up by law enforcers. Supporters of the BNP candidates were hardly seen at the polling centres while AL men dominated those.
In Barisal, three lawsuits were filed against BNP men in the last few days over extortion, clashes and an arson attack on an AL office.
BNP-nominated mayoral candidate Mujibur Rahman Sarwar said law enforcement agencies arrested around 50 BNP leaders and activists in different cases. The party activists are being harassed in different ways.
“Some of our polling agents were arrested while some others went into hiding in fear of harassment,” he said, adding that many outsiders, including AL leaders from different areas, are staying in Barisal city for the last few days.
Manisha Chakraborty, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD)-nominated mayoral candidate, said, “All my polling agents were threatened... They were asked not to go to the voting centres on the election day. They received threats that if they go to the centres, they would be harassed.”
Meanwhile, the EC served a notice on AL mayoral candidate Serniabat Sadiq Abdullah, asking him to give explanations on his alleged violation of the electoral code of conduct.
The EC made the move after Islami Andolan Bangladesh candidate Obaidur Rahman Mahabub alleged at a press conference that the AL candidate held a gathering even after the expiry of the deadline for campaigning.
Contacted, Assistant Returning Officer Mohammad Helal Uddin said they sent the notice to Sadiq as he allegedly joined a gathering on Saturday evening. The deadline for campaigning ended at Friday midnight.
Sadiq was asked to reply by 6:00pm yesterday.
Later, Barisal City AL President Golam Abbas Chowdhury Dulal at a press conference confirmed that Sadiq replied to the EC notice.
Sadiq could not be reached for comments.
Visiting different parts of Barisal city yesterday, it was found that an uneasy calm prevailed in the city corporation areas.
“I will try to go to the polling centre in the morning if the election atmospehere remains peaceful,” said Suvas Chandra Das, a voter.
In Sylhet, the situation is even worse for the BNP men.
At least four cases were filed against 187 BNP men by police and AL supporters, while a number of BNP leaders and activists were arrested in the last 10 days.
BNP mayoral candidate Ariful Haque Choudhury alleged that law enforcers and the AL are ruining the election environment.
Mayoral candidate Abu Jafor, backed by the Communist Party of Bangladesh and the BSD, echoed his views.
“We want fair polls but the situation is not that good. We cannot call it a level playing field.”
Independent candidate Ahsanul Mahboob Zubair, who has the backing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, said, “We believe that a free and fair election can still be held if the Election Commission and the law enforcement agencies perform their duties neutrally.”
Asked, Returning Officer Alimuzzaman said, “All the preparations are complete... We have taken necessary steps to ward off unwanted incidents. We believe there is no reason to worry about the polls.”
Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) will be used at 11 booths in four wards of the city.
The election atmosphere is almost the same in Rajshahi.
Tajlem Uddin, an electrician in Hetomkhan area, expressed his fear about possible violence on the voting day.
“I will observe the situation in the morning and then I will go to the voting centre with my family members,” he said.
A number of BNP leaders said many of the party men are staying out of their homes in fear of police harassment.
Sekandar Ali, general secretary of Ward 11 BNP unit, said, “There are no criminal charges against me, but still police are after me.”
He said the law enforcers picked up a BNP activist and threatened several others in his Ward over the last few days.
Office Secretary of Rajshahi BNP Nazmul Haque said the police arrested a total of 175 BNP leaders and activists since July 10.
BNP mayoral candidate Mosaddek Hossain Bulbul feared that today's polls would be rigged.
He claimed that at least 20 of his polling agents had gone out of trace since last night.
“We have finalised a list of polling agents ... But we failed to track 20 to 25 of them since last night. We are still trying to reach them,” he told reporters at Rajshahi Election Commission Office.
AL mayoral candidate AHM Khairuzzaman Liton said he would not comment on today's polls as the EC already served show-cause notices on him twice.