In the final days of the Bangladeshi War of Liberation, Pakistani forces, with the help of 'Razakars', pulled Bengali intellectuals and professionals from their homes on 14 December, 1971 and killed them mercilessly in order to paralyse the soon-to-be-independent nation intellectually. In Mirpur and Rayer Bazaar — where their mutilated bodies were found, monuments have been built to remember their sacrifices for the country.

The 14th day of December is marked as Martyred Intellectuals Day in Bangladesh. Every year, hundreds of people from all walks of life gather at Rayer Bazaar to pay homage. And this year was no exception. Children marched alongside each other. In their hands they carried Bangladeshi flags and pamphlets containing pictures of Pakistani lieutenant-general AAK Niazi with Indian lieutenant-general Jagjit Singh Aurora signing the instrument of surrender. To a rousing background score, presenters regaled the audience with stories of valour from the war.

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(All photographs by Akib Khan)

The descendants of intellectuals held a banner that read, "We don't want to see any anti-liberation forces in power". Right next to them, in green and red color camouflage attire was a group of people conducting a political agitation. A little further down, were some posters depicting hangings along with the message, "These are the 1971 attackers. Hate them". On these posters were the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, once the country's largest Islamic party. The highest-ranked among these Opposition leaders were hanged after Sheikh Hasina came to power a decade ago, because of their support to Pakistan during the 1971 war.

"Awami League is Bangladesh and Bangladesh is Awami League," said a supporter of the party.

This occasion was very similar to any political party event in the country; Hasina's pictures adorned every nook and cranny. And the whole event created the image that the Awami League was the sole liberator of the country in 1971. Hasina's name was on everyone's lips, with most attendees proclaiming that she should continue to rule the country.

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She has been encashing the nationalistic emotions of the public just a few days before the upcoming General Election, scheduled for 30 December. But even so, there are critical voices: Sultana, a 19-year-old first-time voter calls for a fresh start in the country, with new faces in Parliament, because the old ones are corrupt and dirty. "We want fresh minds and people," said Sultana.

But that does not happen in Bangladesh. In between some military-ruled governments, the country has been run since Independence by only two political parties: Either by the Centre-Left leaning Awami League or the Centre-Right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Third parties never made it.

Junaid Abdur Rahim Saki, who is contesting Sunday's election from the Dhaka 12 constituency as a candidate of the Biplobi Workers Party, explains why.

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"Both of the parties are the beneficiaries of the structurally autocratic system, and they never tried to change it. So basically, a third force can't emerge in this structure," says Saki. In his 40s, he is the chief coordinator of the Gono Songhoti Andolon (People's Solidarity Movement). It is a member of the Left Democratic Alliance (LDA), a platform of eight leftist parties in the country. "There are third parties," he says, "But they are polarised and in order to come to power, they have to align with either the Awami League or BNP."

In the present system, according to Saki, the sentiment of dissatisfaction gives votes to the Opposition party. After a tenure as president of the Bangladesh Chhatra Federation, a left-wing organisation, Saki formed his own political party, the Gono Songhoti Andolon, in 2002 with an aim to establish a 'functional democracy' in Bangladesh.

"(People think) we need to get out of this (present system), so we have to chose someone who can defeat them, and so, it's only the main Opposition that can defeat them, so the anger and anti-incumbency sentiment of the people generally plays into the hands of the main Opposition," he adds. Saki notes that voters view it as a waste of a vote to cast their ballot for anyone else. "'Why choose a party that does not win anyway?' they ask," he says.

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Any vote for Saki's party would be similarly viewed as a waste because he does not plan to enter a coalition with either of the two big parties. After all, they were the only ones who benefit from the present system. "No, we are not aligning," he confirms.

The credibility of leftist leaders is tested on various grounds in a country like Bangladesh for example, on their alleged inability to speak to the capitalist demands that Bangladesh needs, to religious feelings that are substantial for the majority of Bangladeshis.

"The government's main slogan is development, so they are propagating less democracy. For them development first, democracy second. But we are saying that without democracy and accountability, we won't have proper inclusive development," Saki says. According to him, business and the private sector are essential components for economic prosperity, but that must be inclusive and environmental concerns should also be taken seriously.

"We need three things. If we want inclusive development, we'll have to prioritise projects. If we want development for all, then we have to check the expenditure. And we'll have to look into ecological concerns and sensitivities."

In his door-to-door campaign in Dhaka 12, he is asking people to vote for a free and fearless Bangladesh.

"People are afraid. If you say something or write something, you will be charged and arrested. It was unthinkable in Bangladesh. That’s why we are saying we want to build a Bangladesh free of fear, and for that we have to establish a functional democracy."

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The polarisation of politics in Bangladesh plays into the hands of the two big political parties. It guarantees them either power or the role of the strongest Opposition party in Parliament. There is no room for others. The voter is obliged to vote for 'the lesser of two evils'. And the irony is that the two parties hardly different from each other, according to Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.

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"There is not much difference between the two major political parties. They are from the same class. The top leaderships too, despite obvious differences in ideology, are similar," he says, "On the most important issues, like the economy, the two parties represent virtually the same thing. There were some differences before on foreign policy, but they now have a consensus."

This year, however, a component is missing in the political equation: Khaleda Zia. The leader of Bangladesh's Opposition party, BNP, is in prison on corruption charges — charges that she staunchly denies. And that has created a vacuum.

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Filling that vacuum, according to Ahmed, is Dr Kamal Hossain. "Hossain’s role in bringing all the political parties to the election is unique," he says.

Hossain is a respected international lawyer who drafted the country's Constitution. His Gano Forum (People's Forum), a key component of the Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) — an alliance of several parties including BNP — is challenging Hasina in the upcoming election. And bringing change and democracy to the country is on Hossain's agenda:

"It's a coalition for change and people see this as an alternative to the government. I support change and democratic, peaceful change. Change means a shift from the one-person State of Hasina," says Hossain, likening the present scenario to a 'monarchy'.

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When asked how the Oikya Front will be different from the present government, Hossain says, "We are sick of hearing about development. We want democracy and development both. You won't have real democracy without development." Hossain had been jailed alongside with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation. Later, he became the first law minister under the Rahman-led newborn Bangladesh government.

Ironically, the 82-year-old politician now seeks to end Rahman's daughter's decade-long rule. But he knows that change in Bangladesh has never happened without one of the two strong parties. Although Hossain heads the Opposition front, he himself is not in the running for any office.

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With Khaleda behind bars, is Hossain using the leaderless party of the Opposition and his international image to come back to power from the backdoor? "In this type of coalition, they have numbers, but we have more experience and political people from my party and other components of the alliance," he explains, adding that he hopes the alliance garners enough votes so that the BNP cannot decide on everything on its own. "A return to the same old party in power would be a shame," he says.

"It's a challenge, but it will be a shame if at the end of the day, you just get another BNP government like it used to be," he says.

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In 2014, the Hasina-led Awami League had returned to power for a second consecutive term. But the BNP has boycotted that election. In her last 10 years of rule, she has been blamed for using the police and judiciary to eliminate or suppress the Opposition and freedom of speech in the country. Local and international rights groups also warned of an extreme violation of human rights in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch, a US-based human rights organisation, in a report on 22 December strongly appealed to Bangladeshi authorities to ensure the protection of candidates and conduct a safe and credible election.

At the end of the day, Hossain and the left-wing Saki both have the same goal: To bring democracy back to the country and change the decades-old power structure of the two major parties in the country. The difference is this: Hossain is attempting to do so from within the system. Saki seeks to do it from the outside.

The author tweets @kaqibb 

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