Among the 19 constituencies in Sylhet division, Sylhet-1 has always been the general election bellwether for parties. Every party that had won this constituency since the restoration of democracy in 1991, went on to form the government.
In the February 1991 election, the BNP won Sylhet-1 and formed the government. Five years later, an Awami League candidate was victorious there, paving the way for the party to return to power 21 years after the violent overthrow of the Bangabandhu government in 1975.
In 2001, the BNP defeated its archrival in this seat and swept back to power.
The 2008 parliamentary election was no exception. The AL candidate won the seat and the party formed the government. The AL retained the seat in the January 5, 2014, parliamentary polls.
Local leaders and activists of the AL and the BNP believe that the decades-old tradition of Sylhet-1 picking the party to form the next government would continue. Therefore, both sides have been giving special attention to this constituency made up of areas of the Sylhet City Corporation and Sylhet Sadar.
Even Jatiya Oikyafront, the recently launched alliance of the BNP and several other parties, which chose Sylhet city for its first public rally today, is likely to nominate a strong candidate -- Sultan Mohammad Monsur, a former AL leader.
At least five AL men are trying to get nomination for this constituency as Muhith indicated that he might not run in the next polls.
Muhith's younger brother and former diplomat Abdul Momen, former Bangladesh Bank governor Mohammed Farashuddin, former election commissioner Sohul Hossain, and AL central organising secretary Mesbah Uddin Siraj are also vying for AL tickets of this seat.
BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's adviser Khandaker Muktadir and BNP central committee member Shariar Hossain Chowdhury are in the race for nomination. However, BNP grassroots want Tarique Rahman's wife Zubaida Rahman to contest the polls from this constituency.
The BNP leaders are optimistic about Sylhet-1 as they think back-to-back wins of BNP's Ariful Haq Chowdhury in the mayoral election of Sylhet City Corporation (2013, 2018) indicate good chance for its candidate.
As Jatiya Party does not have any strong candidate there, its local activists want Chairman HM Ershad to run from Sylhet-1.
Jamaat's central secretary general Shafiqur Rahman is also likely to run from Sylhet-1 under the BNP-led alliance or as an independent candidate.
Sylhet division has more interesting facts.
All the previous finance ministers -- Saifur Rahman and Shah ASM Kibria -- and incumbent AMA Muhith are from this division. Saifur and Muhith became finance ministers twice and Kibria once. Saifur won Sylhet-1 in 2001 while Muhith won the seat in 2008 and 2014.
There is another distinct feature in this division, comprising Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, and Sunamganj districts. Most candidates here begin their campaign by offering fateha at the shrines of Hazrat Shah Jalal (RA) and Hazrat Shah Poran (RA). It is also a tradition of major political parties to start their campaign in this division this way.
Talking to The Daily Star, leaders of both AL and BNP expressed hope that they would get most of the seats in the region.
Ahmed Hossain, organising secretary (Sylhet division) of AL, said, "As a democratic party, there will be a number of prospective candidates but the selection board will nominate the best among them. Once the nomination is finalised, all others will work with the nominated candidate and ensure victory of our candidate.”
BNP Organising Secretary (Sylhet division) Shakhawat Hasan Jibon, said, "Our party is yet to decide whether we will contest the polls. If we join and the election is held fairly, we will surely win in almost all the seats [in the region]."
Abdullah Siddiqui, organising secretary of Jatiya Party (JP), said the party was yet to decide whether it will contest the polls separately or as partner of the AL. All the JP men will act in line with the party decision. "We believe no one will dare to contest as a rebel ignoring the party's decision."
A large number of expatriates are also trying to get party nominations in the division. There is hardly any constituency in which an expatriate is not looking for nominations.
The AL has 16 potential expatriate candidates while the BNP has 12 in Sylhet division.
Sylhet-6 has the highest number of expatriate ticket aspirants.
Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid is the incumbent but six expatriate aspirants from AL and JP want to replace him there. Two of them live in the US, three in the UK, and one in Canada.
Sylhet division is also a traditional stronghold of the AL. Even when the party suffered a crushing defeat in 2001, it won 7 of the 19 seats in the region.
The JP did well in 1991, getting eight seats, but its performance kept declining since.
The BNP that formed governments in 1991 and 2001 after winning Sylhet-1 is not strong in Sylhet region. Its best performance in Sylhet was in 2001 when it bagged nine seats. In 2008, it did not get a single seat in Sylhet.
Both the major parties – the AL and the BNP – might have to deal with the intra-party rival issue. The AL has around 96 nomination seekers while the BNP has 72 vying for nomination in the 19 constituencies.
One of the reasons for such a large number of candidates is that the grassroots have been against incumbent MPs.
Ruling party MPs have largely been absent in local committee-level affairs. The committees are being run by grassroot leaders and they now oppose the MPs claiming that they are merely placeholders. The expatriate candidates can only deepen this conflict, said the party insiders.
[Our Sylhet correspondent Dwoha Chowdhury contributed to this report.]