DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is poised to win a record fourth term in Sunday's elections, drumming up support by promising a development bonanza as her critics question if the South Asian nation's tremendous economic success has come at the expense of its already fragile democracy.
The polls, the 11th since Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, pit 71-year-old Hasina against a united opposition helmed by Kamal Hossain, 82, an Oxford-educated lawyer and former foreign minister. Notably absent is former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 74, Hasina's archrival and the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Courts ruled she was ineligible to run from her colonial-era Dhaka jail cell, where she's serving a 17-year sentence for corruption.
Hasina and Zia have been in and out of power and prison for decades, vying to run the young Muslim-majority country of 160 million. Zia's BNP boycotted the 2014 polls. As a result, voter turnout was only 22 percent, according to Bangladesh's Election Commission. More than half of the 300 seats in Parliament were uncontested. Dozens of people died in post-election violence.
This time, more than 104 million people are eligible to vote. Nearly one in 10 are young voters, including many first-time voters, in one of the world's largest democratic exercises.
After a decade of rule by Hasina's Awami League party and in Zia's absence, Hossain, once a close aide to Hasina's father, Bangladesh's founding president, has risen as the primary challenger, attracting the interest of Bangladesh's growing middle class and Western diplomats not wholly convinced Hasina's development gains justify her increasingly heavy-handed rule.
"Development is not only economic growth, it has a far broader meaning which includes human rights, rule of law, inclusivity, accountability and good governance, all (of which) seem to be missing here," said Illinois State University politics professor Ali Riaz.
The runup to the election has been marred by allegations from Hossain supporters of arrests and jailing of thousands of Hasina opponents. About 600,000 security personnel including thousands of military soldiers and paramilitary border guards have been deployed. State police have barred opposition marches and foiled rallies.
At least six people have been killed in campaign-related clashes that local media report were mostly perpetrated by ruling-party activists backed by police. BNP spokesman Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said more than 12,000 opposition activists have been injured.
Facebook last week shut down a series of fake news sites spreading false information about the opposition that a threat intelligence consultancy determined were created and managed by government associates.
Earlier this year, Hasina spearheaded a draconian new digital law that journalists and some academics charged could be wielded to silence government critics.
Hasina defended it in Parliament as a tool to combat dangerous propaganda. "Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country," she said.
With Hasina's hold on the state machinery increasingly clear, doubts have arisen about the fairness of the vote. The opposition this week demanded the resignation of the Election Commission chief.
"So far the indications do not suggest we have a level playing field in place for the election to be fully free and fair," said Iftekhar Zaman, head of Paris-based corruption watchdog Transparency International's Bangladesh chapter.
While rights groups sound the alarms about the erosion of democracy, Hasina has promoted a different narrative, highlighting an ambitious economic agenda that has propelled Bangladesh past larger neighbors Pakistan and India by some development measures.
Bangladesh ranked 136 out of 189 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, which factors in life expectancy, years of education and gross national income, jumping 7 spots from 2012. The World Bank has praised the country for sharply reducing the percentage of its people living in extreme poverty.
Hasina embarked on a two-story, 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) bridge tapping government coffers rather than the World Bank's proffered loans. She has formed joint ventures with Japan, India, China and Russia, all clamoring for access to the northern Bay of Bengal. India and Russia jointly built Bangladesh's first nuclear power plant. Bangladesh launched its first commercial satellite earlier this year.
Bangladesh's garment industry exports $30 billion a year to supply the racks of Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and other fashion retailers, making it the second-largest in the world after China.
After an assault by Islamic militants in 2016 in which 20 hostages, including 17 foreigners from Italy, Japan and India, were killed, security officials under Hasina launched a massive crackdown, apparently destroying their network. Again, Hasina elected to handle the crisis in-house rather than engaging international players, and successfully suppressed claims that the Islamic State was behind the attack.
Hasina's security officials have killed more than 60 radical Islamists including some commanders since 2016 in a zero-tolerance campaign against hard-liners.
The same groups who criticize Hasina's heavy-handedness in civil matters have lauded her treatment of Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing a military assault in neighboring Myanmar. She ordered border guards to open the frontier for Rohingya fleeing what many call a campaign of ethnic cleansing in August 2017, allowing more than 700,000 refugees to take shelter in camps near the city of Cox's Bazar. Despite some external pressure, she has maintained a policy of voluntary return.
Still, Hasina's profile of courage has been tarnished by her intolerance of domestic critics.
And on Thursday, Hossain urged supporters who might fear violence and intimation and stay away from the polls.
"My appeal to the people: Be brave, this is our right," he said.
Associated Press writer Emily Schmall contributed to this report.