Amid allegations and counter allegations about violation of electoral rules and possible vote rigging by both the Awami League and the BNP, the high-voltage battle of ballots in Khulna City Corporation takes place today to decide which camp is having the last laugh.
The voting starts at 8:00am and will continue until 4:00pm without any break to elect the city mayor and 41 councillors for the next five years.
Despite the heated political situation, the Election Commission and the law enforcers yesterday claimed they were all set to hold the polls in a free and fair manner ensuring a congenial atmosphere.
Both the camps of the AL and its archrival BNP looked to have summoned all their strength to seal victory in the prestigious polls that would be a test of popularity ahead of the general elections likely in December.
The parties believe win in those elections would also boost their morale to a great extent and they would be able to go for the Jatiya Sangsad polls with an upbeat, according to political analysts.
A defeat could be the opposite.
Also, a win for the AL candidate through irregularities will taint the government's image and strengthen the BNP's demand for the parliamentary polls under a non-partisan government, they said, adding the election would also be a test for the EC to prove its acceptance and accountability ahead of the December polls.
With 4.93 lakh voters, Khulna city corporation area is considered a stronghold of the BNP. Its leaders won three of the four mayoral polls there since the first elections in 1994.
During field visits, The Daily Star correspondents yesterday saw that the entire Khulna city was flooded with posters and banners of the AL mayor candidate and the councillor aspirants.
Although illegal, there were “polling offices” of the AL on different streets of the city.
Like on Sunday, almost no BNP men was seen on the streets yesterday to work for their mayor candidate.
Amid such a situation, many voters expressed doubt whether the voting would be fair.
BNP leaders alleged that their posters and banners were torn by the ruling party men -- an allegation rejected by the AL.
They also alleged that AL men, desperate for a win, were trying to capture polling stations yesterday to go for ballot stuffing today.
Talking to The Daily Star, at least 10 BNP-backed ward councillors alleged that AL men along with some policemen were intimidating their polling agents and their family members so that they don't come out of their home today.
“We are in fear whether our polling agents, workers and voters will be able to go to the polling centres,” BNP's mayor candidate Nazrul Islam Monju said at a briefing at his party office.
He said police detained at least 18 BNP men yesterday, taking the total number of party men held ahead of the polls to 154.
He further alleged that police in Khulna were not letting hotel owners to accommodate BNP men. However, the case was different for AL men.
Monju, who was elected a lawmaker in the 2008 national elections, expressed fear that AL men would fake fights in front of polling centres today to have them vacated for ballot stuffing.
Meanwhile, AL mayor candidate Talukder Abdul Khaleque at another press conference in Khulna yesterday rejected all the allegations.
He brought a counter allegation against the BNP that its candidate was sure about his defeat and that was why he was gathering the cadres of the BNP-Jamaat and banned militant outfits for vote rigging.
“My opponent is trying to spread propaganda to raise questions over the election. Why they are in fear? People will vote for them if they had worked for the people and we will accept the results,” he said.
Asked about detaining BNP men, the AL leader said law enforcers were arresting ruling party men as well. He, however, could not give any number of such AL men.
He claimed that a level-playing field was ensured ahead of the polls where people would be able to cast their votes without any fear.
At one point, Khaleque, who resigned as an MP to contest the polls, became emotional and said he was committed to serving the people in Khulna until his death.
Several AL leaders accused the BNP candidate of violating the electoral code of conduct.
Talking to The Daily Star, several top officials from the Khulna Metropolitan Police said they were instructed to carry out their election duty impartially.
“We have taken all out preparations to thwart any untoward situation for ensuring a peaceful atmosphere on the voting day,” KMP Commissioner Humayun Kabir said.
“Stern legal actions will be taken against the offenders irrespective of their party affiliation.”
Another top official from the KMP said, “We have taken special preparations to maintain law and order near the risky polling stations.”
Contacted, Returning Officer Md Yunus Ali said they were all set for the polls.
He also said they would stop voting at any polling station if there was any rigging.
Meanwhile, Monju met the RO last night and demanded immediate withdrawal of the KMP commissioner, deputy commissioner of DB in the district and the OCs of the six police stations in the city.
The BNP leader alleged that the police officials were working for the AL candidate and that if they were not withdrawn, today's polls would be farcical.
The High Court yesterday directed law enforcers not to harass or arrest any political activists in Khulna City Corporation area until the election was over.
The court also issued a rule asking the government to explain in four weeks why the alleged mass arrest of BNP leaders, activists and election campaigners should not be declared illegal.
The HC bench of Justice Moyeenul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Md Ashraful Kamal came up with the order and rule in response to a writ petition was filed on Sunday.