The only point of interest regarding Sunday's (January 7) 12th general election in Bangladesh is whether more people turn out to vote, or join the boycott of the main opposition party, which has called for general strikes (hartals) on the day of and preceding the parliamentary election.

This year, ballot stations are opening amid an increasingly polarised political culture led by two powerful women; current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader and former premier Khaleda Zia, currently under house arrest.

Campaigning stopped at 8:00 a.m. on Friday. The Election Commission announced polling would be held in 299 constituencies out of 300 across the country on Sunday. As per the law, election in one constituency was postponed after an independent candidate died of natural causes. The BNP and other opposition parties are boycotting the election, saying there is no guarantee it will be free, fair and inclusive under Hasina's administration.

Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior joint secretary general in Zia's party, urged people not to vote on Sunday while calling for strikes.

"The 48-hour hartal (general strike) will begin at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday and end at 6:00 a.m. on Monday," he said Thursday night during his daily online press briefing.

On Friday morning, Rizvi led more than 100 opposition leaders and activists, holding sticks, marched in the capital's Karwan Bazar area while chanting anti-government slogans.

"People will not accept this illegal election. People will not accept this election of looters," Rizvi said during the march.

Also on Friday, a group of about 100 left-leaning political activists strode near Dhaka's National Press Club, demanding the government halt a "farcical election."

The opposition had repeatedly demanded Hasina's resignation and for a non-party caretaker government to oversee the election. The current administration said the country's constitution didn't allow that.

Hasina addressed the nation in a last televised campaign speech Thursday night, urging people to head to the ballot stations.

"If I have made any mistakes along the way, I ask your forgiveness. If I can form the government again, I will get a chance to correct the mistakes. Give me an opportunity to serve you by voting for boat in the Jan. 7 election," she said.

The boat is the election symbol of Hasina's ruling Awami League party.

Earlier on Thursday, Hasina, addressing a huge campaign rally at Fatullah near Dhaka, urged all to maintain peace across the country. Violence marred the campaigns that started on Dec.18, leaving at least three people dead and others injured.

Bangladesh has a history of violence during elections and this year the country's election is drawing international attention.

Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal in a closed-door meeting briefed Thursday foreign envoys and chiefs of development agencies, including the United Nations, based in Dhaka about electoral preparations. Local media reported that some diplomats asked about how potential violence will be dealt with.

The U.N. Secretary-General's Associate Spokeswoman Florencia Soto Nino in New York said Wednesday: "We're watching the process closely, and we hope that all elections happen in a transparent and organised manner. That's all we have for now," she said during a daily news briefing.

Critics have accused Hasina of systemically suffocating the opposition by implementing repressive security measures. Zia's party claimed that more than 20,000 opposition supporters have been arrested. The government said those figures were inflated and denied arrests were made due to political leanings, but rather for criminal charges such as arson and vandalism.

Nearly 1.6 million people - half of them security personnel - will oversee the election where 119.1 million registered voters are eligible to vote in more than 42,000 polling stations, the commission said. Troops have also been deployed across the country to assist when needed under the supervision of magistrates, a common practice in Bangladesh during general elections.

The Election Commission said Thursday that about 300 foreign observers, more than 70 of them foreign journalists, have been authorised to monitor and cover the election.

In the eyes of the youth

For decades, political battles in Bangladesh have been fought on the streets, often with violence, by parties led by two powerful women. But there are signs of a generational change as the country of 169 million heads into Sunday's election.

While the opposition boycott and acrimony tarnish the polls, millions of young voters are seeking a different narrative. A burgeoning technology industry, lively e-commerce and a growing public digital infrastructure are helping one of South Asia's fastest growing economies capitalise on a tech-savvy workforce that is demanding change from politicians.

Ahead of the election, boycotted by the main opposition led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is trying to woo first-time voters with her government's "Digital Bangladesh" project, promising a "smart Bangladesh" by 2041 and 15 million new jobs for young people by 2030.

In an address at a large election rally outside Dhaka on Saturday, Hasina asked young voters for their support "so that the advancement of Bangladesh continues."

Some are listening. Shahrima Tanjin Arni, 26, who teaches law at Dhaka University, called Hasina a bold leader with a vision for a digital future.

"She holds the values of the past, but at the same time, she has a progressive thinking in her progressive heart, which is not very common in Bangladeshi societies," Arni said.

The previous two general elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation, which authorities denied. Hasina, seeking a fourth consecutive term, pledges a free and fair election. But her critics allege she is undermining the process for an inclusive election and suppressing the opposition, which Hasina blames for violence.

Younger voters say they want a break from the highly polarised political culture and concerns over democratic rights.

"My desire is that ... people of Bangladesh will freely exercise their voting right, their freedom of speech will be ensured and the justice system will work independently," said Abdur Rahim Rony, a student at Dhaka University. "I also wish that no political party or the government will interfere with the constitutional institutions."

One-fourth of the country's population is in the 15-29 age group, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Almost one-third of the country's 119.1 million registered voters are between 18 and 30.

An October survey by the Bangladesh Citizen's Platform for SDGs, or sustainable development goals, conducted online and involving 5,075 people aged 18-35, found that 69% of young people in Bangladesh considered corruption and nepotism as the main obstacles to development as the country sheds its least-developed economic status and grows into a middle-income developing country.

"We don't want any chaos on the streets or violence. When I finish my studies, I wish to do a job or start my own business peacefully," said 20-year-old Raul Tamjid Rahman, a first-time voter and computer science student at Brac University in Dhaka. "It's a call from our generation to our politicians and policymakers."

The telecom boom in Bangladesh began in 1997 when Hasina issued free licences to three operators to run the mobile phone sector. It was a key chance for global companies to invest in one of the world's most densely populated countries.

"The expansion of digital economy is a miracle that is bringing changes to the economic landscape, with young people at the helm," said Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at the Sri Lanka-based think tank LIRNEasia.

According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the country now has close to 127 million internet users, with about 114 million mobile internet subscribers.

The government has spent millions of dollars to turn a network of 8,500 rural post offices into e-centers for local communities. New startups include some funded by Silicon Valley investors, and mobile money transfers have become common. Most of Bangladesh's 4 million garment workers, a majority of them women, use SMS-based money transfer apps to help their families in rural areas.

But inflation and dwindling foreign currency reserves still challenge Bangladesh's economy. The country sought a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2022 to safeguard its finances.

The government is optimistic, however, that the economy, which grew from $8.75 billion in 1971 to $460 billion in 2022, will soon be worth half a trillion dollars.

"Mobile voice and mobile video both have become the oxygen of (the) economy, as simple as that," analyst Khan said.

The expansion of digital infrastructure has come with concerns over a contentious 2018 Digital Security Act and its recent replacement, the Cyber Security Act. The government says they are needed to fight misinformation, hacking and attempts to undermine people's rights.

Critics and rights activists said the previous law was misused by the government to suppress dissent and freedom of speech. Critics say the new cyber security law will not bring many differences. In March, a journalist for a leading newspaper was arrested under the law on charges of spreading false news.

T.I.M. Nurul Kabir, executive director of the Foreign Investors' Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that despite challenges, Bangladesh's digital development is attracting young people.

"This is the new generation who are coming ahead with innovations," he said. "For a developed Bangladesh, these young people, these digital dreamers, are the backbone. Women are also increasingly joining that future journey."

Tech entrepreneur Achia Nila is one of them.

"Technology is super important in my daily life. It fits into everything I do," Nila said, adding that it helps to connect with clients and the international market.

Ahead of Sunday's election, Nila called on political parties not to fight and instead focus on working together to further develop Bangladesh.

Many young people feel frustrated with corruption and bureaucracy, she said, and warned that they may prefer to migrate to other countries because of better opportunities.

The view from abroad

India has continued to describe the January 7 election as a domestic affair of Bangladesh, while China said the next election will be a milestone for the democratic process of Bangladesh.

"We have been very consistently saying that the election in Bangladesh is the domestic affair of Bangladesh," official spokesperson at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Randhir Jaiswal told reporters in New Delhi.

Responding to a question at a media briefing on Thursday, he said it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their future.

"So that is where we are. This question was asked in the last presser also. My predecessor then answered this question as well. So I will leave it at that," said the newly appointed MEA spokesperson.

On the other hand, China hoped that the election would be held smoothly.

"Hopefully, it will be a successful and smooth election. It will be a milestone for the continuation of democratic process in Bangladesh," Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen told reporters on Thursday.

From China, he said, they hope the election will be held successfully and Bangladesh will be stronger and more resilient after the election.

US spokesperson Matthew Miller said they support a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

"We have made that quite clear a number of times. We will watch the elections very closely," he said.

But of course, Miller added that he would never speculate in advance about what actions they may or may not take in response to any development.

The United Nations has said they are watching the election process in Bangladesh "closely."

"We hope that all the elections happen in a transparent and organized manner. That's all we have for now," Associate Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Florencia Soto Niño told reporters in a briefing in New York on January 3.

The Election Commission has taken all the preparations to hold the 12th national parliamentary election on January 7 peacefully.

Opposition BNP is boycotting the polls.

Election expert teams from NDI-IRI, the European Union (EU), are already in Dhaka, while foreign observers from a number of countries, including a team from Commonwealth, will observe the polls.

An election observer mission from Japan is scheduled to be in Bangladesh from January 5 to 9 to support the fair implementation of the general election scheduled for January 7, 2024.

The mission, dispatched by the government of Japan, will be headed by Watanabe Masato, former Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh, and will consist of officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the Embassy of Japan in Bangladesh as well as an outside expert.

In addition to observing the casting and counting of votes, the mission will exchange views and information with the Bangladesh Election Commission and election observer missions from other countries, said the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka on Thursday.

The dispatch of the election observer mission is part of Japan's cooperation for the consolidation of democracy in Bangladesh in response to the Bangladesh Election Commission's announcement that it would welcome international election observers.

With the opposition BNP boycotting the January 7 polls, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party Awami League party are all but guaranteed a fourth consecutive term.

Additional reporting by AP, UNB

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