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DHAKA, Bangladesh – Shut out by mainstream media and too scared to hustle on the streets, Bangladesh’s main opposition party has been reduced to social media lobbying for votes in this week’s national elections.
Two weeks into the campaign, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has addressed hundreds of thousands of people in rallies across the country as she seeks a record 4th term.
Public gatherings by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are tiny by comparison.
Its leader Khaleda Zia is serving a 17-year jail term for a graft conviction, which the party says is a politically motivated attempt to sideline Hasina’s chief rival.
The BNP says many of its candidates have been too scared to campaign in public and fear violent intimidation by ruling party followers or arrest by authorities.
More than 150 of its candidates have been attacked, 15 arrested, and thousands of party activists injured in clashes with rivals from the ruling Awami League, according to the BNP.
At least 6 supporters from both parties have been killed in election clashes.
Fearing bloodshed, the BNP has instead turned to Facebook to canvass support from Bangladesh’s 100 million voters ahead of Sunday’s election.
An online plea by BNP secretary general Fakhrul Islam Alamgir to the nation’s younger voters went viral in recent days.
The 3-minute video was released on Friday night, December 21, and was shared tens of thousands of times over the weekend.
The Awami League wants to “create an environment of fear so that you lose interest in voting on the morning of December 30,” he says in the post.
“You can prevent vote robbery. Democracy must be saved.”
A recording of a poem recited by young voters urging them to condemn a violent government crackdown on student protests earlier this year also spread like wildfire online.
Pro-Awami League groups have responded by flooding Facebook with videos of Bangladeshi celebrities, each lauding the country’s solid economic growth since Hasina’s second stint in office began in 2009.
State-run media and many private television stations do not run opposition adverts for fear of government reprisals, said BNP spokesman Sayrul Kabir Khan.
While Awami League campaign ads are ubiquitous on television, “the only medium where we can post our video is Facebook,” Khan said.
Authorities last week blocked the BNP website, claiming it contained “indecent” and “obscene” material – a move that prompted outrage and accusations of censorship from the opposition. The party’s Facebook page was also down for several days.
At the same time the government has run its own online influence campaign in a bid to shore up votes ahead of the Sunday poll.
Facebook last week said it had suspended 9 pages and 6 accounts linked to “individuals associated with the Bangladesh government” which posted anti-opposition content while masquerading as independent news sources.
Civil society and rights groups have accused the government of silencing dissent and the press with an onerous digital-security law.
Motiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor of the Bangladeshi tabloid Manabzamin, said Facebook was the last refuge for voices critical of the Awami League’s increasing slide towards authoritarianism.
“The opposition is too afraid to campaign freely. The media has been cornered as well. This is the reality,” he said. – Rappler.com