In an election of prestige both for the Awami League and the BNP, voters of Gazipur City Corporation will decide today which camp will have a victory laugh just six months before the parliamentary polls.
The election also poses a major challenge for the Election Commission after it drew a lot of flak over its role in the Khulna City Corporation polls last month.
While the ruling AL wants to regain its stronghold and the BNP to demonstrate its popularity, the EC is faced with the test if it can hold a free, fair and peaceful election.
As the schedules for elections to Rajshahi, Barisal and Sylhet city corporations have also been announced, political observers say voting in Gazipur is very much crucial ahead of the three other city polls on July 30 and the parliamentary polls in December.
This is the country's largest city corporation, comprising parts of Gazipur-1, 2 and 5 parliamentary constituencies.
Gazipur-1 was bagged by the BNP once, in 1991 parliamentary polls, but after that it was always held by the AL. In Gazipur-2 and 5, the AL has never lost the national polls since restoration of democracy.
MA Bari, an election observer and former principal of Gazipur Government Girls College, hopes today's election would be a very competitive one.
"This is a traditional AL bastion but the BNP has stunned all in the last city corporation election. Now the Awami League's challenge is to keep the organisational unity while the BNP has to ensure the presence of polling agents in all polling booths," he told The Daily Star.
BNP leaders say they have vote banks in the three constituencies but could not win in any of those after 1991 because of intra-party feuds but they are united for this election.
"When we are united we win. In the last mayoral election, we won the election by more than one and a half lakh votes," Fazlul Haque Milon, president of Gazipur district BNP, told The Daily Star.
Azmat Ullah Khan, president of Gazipur city AL, however, said Gazipur has always been an “AL fort” and the party's mayoral candidate will win by a big margin.
He said the city comprises 57 wards -- 18 from Gazipur-1 constituency, 35 from Gazipur-2 and four from Gazipur-5 constituency.
"Awami League candidates have long been winning in the three constituencies. But last year, the situation in the city corporation was different. This time things have changed and the party is now more united," said Azmat, who lost the last mayoral election.
The AL has fared well in all the national polls here since 1991.
In the 2008 national election, it secured all the five seats, defeating the opposition candidates by big margins. In the 1996 elections, the district was divided into four constituencies and the party won in all of those.
The BNP had managed to win two seats in 1991 and one in 2001, while the AL won two and three seats in the two elections respectively. In 2014 election, AL won all the constituencies as the BNP boycotted it.
In today's polls, AL's Jahangir Alam and BNP's Hasan Uddin Sarker are running for mayor with election symbols boat and paddy sheaf respectively. Besides, there are five other contenders.
Hasan, elected lawmaker twice, is a former mayor of Tongi municipality. Jahangir was vice chairman of Gazipur Sadar Upazila Parishad.
The city is now the centre of attention in politics after the Khulna city polls were marred by violence and ballot stuffing on May 15.
With over 11 lakh people eligible to exercise their franchise, voting opens today at 8:00am in 425 centres of Gazipur and will continue till 4:00pm without any break.
"We believe the election will be free and fair,” said Raquib Uddin Mondal, the returning officer, expressing satisfaction over law and order.
“There are about 11 lakh voters and about 50 percent of them are women. To ensure that everyone can cast votes, we have notified all officials concerned and also publicised adequately."
In the high-voltage election, female voters are emphasising the need for a peaceful voting atmosphere and they also want smooth transportation.
"I cast vote in the last election, I will cast vote in this election too. We want a peaceful situation in polling stations and no chaos," said Jahanara Begum, a resident of Harinal village.
Despite an apparent congenial atmosphere, apprehension is high in the BNP camp.
Their candidate Hasan said yesterday that law enforcers are raiding the houses of party leaders and activists and voters are also full of fear. His chief election agent Sohrab Uddin submitted a written complaint to the returning officer.
The party leaders also alleged that senior leaders of the ruling AL have campaigned defying the ban of Election Commission.
Rejecting the allegations, Jahangir told The Daily Star that people of the city are waiting for a “ballot revolution” today.
"People will show them [BNP] the red card today."
Both Hasan and Jahangir spent the day in their houses and election offices. They talked to the polling agents, election coordinators and issued necessary directives.
Meanwhile, a five-member AL delegation led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Political Adviser HT Imam held a meeting with Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda at the EC Bhaban yesterday.
"The situation in Gazipur is very wonderful ahead of the polls. There are no fears regarding voting. There have been no incidents of violence and disorder," Imam told journalists emerging from the meeting.
The Awami League is trying to hold a free, fair and credible election, he further said.
Claiming that the BNP is trying to make the EC controversial, he said, "The EC is doing whatever is necessary for holding fair polls, but the BNP is saying irresponsible things about the commission."
Addressing a press briefing at the BNP's Nayapaltan headquarters, its Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi alleged that “partisan” police officers have been deployed for the Gazipur polls to create terror.
"Police and other forces are the main barriers to holding a free and fair election in Gazipur."
But, he said, if voters come to the polling centres ignoring all threats and fears, the victory of BNP candidate is confirmed.
BGB personnel are patrolling the streets with members of other law enforcement agencies to maintain law and order.
The Election Commission is ready to hold the voting from 8:00am to 4:00pm without any interval and has decided to use electronic voting machines at six polling stations.
Meanwhile, the High Court yesterday issued a rule asking the authorities concerned to explain in two weeks why they should not be directed not to conduct any indiscriminate arrest of supporters and workers of BNP mayor candidate.
The HC bench of Justice Syed Muhammad Dastagir Husain and Justice Md Iqbal Kabir came up with the rule following a writ petition filed by Hasan Sarker.
The home secretary, inspector general of police, director general of Rab, additional inspector general of police for the CID and Special Branch, superintendent of police of Gazipur, and officers-in-charge of Tongi and Gazipur police stations have been made respondents to the rule, Hasan's lawyer Shanjid Siddique told this newspaper.