2005-05-09 08:15:00
Embassy Dhaka
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 DHAKA 002198 


E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/09/2010

REF: 04 DHAKA 2480

Classified By: P/E Counselor D.C. McCullough, reason para 1.4 d.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 DHAKA 002198


E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/09/2010

REF: 04 DHAKA 2480

Classified By: P/E Counselor D.C. McCullough, reason para 1.4 d.

1. (SBU) Summary. Early reports from Chittagong indicate a
generally peaceful and orderly election with Awami League
incumbent Mohiuddin Chowdhury running neck and neck with his
BNP rival, Civil Aviation State Minister Mohammed Nasiruddin.
Several weeks ago, Chowdhury was the clear front-runner, but
the BNP surged at the end. If Chowdhury loses, the AL will
cry fraud and cite it as proof the BNP plans to steal the
general election expected in early 2007. If the BNP
candidate loses, the BDG will cite the election as proof of
Bangladesh's vibrant democracy. End Summary

The Incumbent

2. (C) Since 1994, ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury has been mayor of
Chittagong, Bangladesh's commercial capital and second
biggest city. Although the mayor's office is nominally
non-party, Chowdhury is an Awami League Central Executive
Committee member. He has a long anti-U.S. track record, and
his incendiary anti-foreign investment/anti-US rhetoric in
2001 led the successful opposition to a proposal by a U.S.
firm, SSA, to build a modern container port in Chittagong
According to an AL presidium member who supported the
proposal, Chowdhury and eminent constitutional lawyer Kamal
Hussain, who represented the opposition in court, acted at
the behest of the GOI, which allegedly wanted to protect the
competitiveness of Calcutta's port and "keep Bangladesh
down." Chowdhury also played to popular opposition to the
war in Iraq, exceptionally high in Chittagong because many
entrepreneurial Chittagonians work in the Middle East, by
vilifying U.S. actions and raising money last summer for
suspect Iraqi groups. After our discreet appeal to AL
president Hasina, Chowdhury was told to clear with her any
anti-USG statements (reftel),which effectively ended his USG

3. (C) Populist and charismatic with strong ties to labor and
other civil groups, Chowdhury was widely seen as the
front-runner, with some estimates giving him 60 percent of
the vote.

The Challenger

4. (C) Nasiruddin, a former Chittagong mayor and former
ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a strong supporter of the
BNP's alliance with Jamaat Islami (JI). Yet, his campaign

was initially hindered by disinterest from key BNP leaders
like Tariq Rahman, the PM's son and heir apparent, and PMO
Parliamentary Affairs Advisor S.Q. Chowdhury, apparently
because of local political rivalries. Rahman told us in
February Nasirudin could not win. Nasirudin faced other
handicaps: his formal nomination was late in coming; one
faction of the IOJ, the extremist member of the ruling
coalition, initially fielded its own candidate; and
Nasiruddin is a lackluster campaigner.

5. (C) But in the past two weeks, a flood of senior BNP and
JI leaders went to Chittagong to support Nasiruddin. At a
huge rally on May 7, Tariq Rahman, BNP SYG Mannan Bhuyian,
and firebrand JI MP Delwar Hussain Sayadee urged Chittagong's
1.1 million voters to support Nasiruddin. Tariq invoked the
blood sacrifices of his family in his appeal for the BNP
candidates for mayor and ward commissioners. Prime Minister
Khaleda Zia, addressing a rally in western Bangladesh,
charged a particular party with conspiring to derail
Bangladesh's progress under her administration. She urged
Chittagonians to "unite to foil the conspiracy as you did the
last polls by voting for the BNP-led alliance."

Alleged Manipulations

6. (SBU) In the weeks preceding the election, the AL charged
the Rapid Action Battalion and the police were harassing
their activists and leaders in Chittagong with late night
raids, detentions, and false charges. The charges developed
some credibility when the Election Commission (EC),
reportedly over the objections of Home State Minister Babar,
succeeded in getting the BDG to remove Chittagong police
commissioner Amjad Hussain for inappropriate behavior on
behalf of the BNP candidate. AL leaders complained loudly
that the EC's decision to accredit up to 650 "observers" from
the National Democratic Foundation, an allegedly pro-BNP NGO
with no election monitoring experience, would give Nasiruddin
hundreds of supporters with semi-official status at polling
areas. On May 7, Sheikh Hasina charged the ruling coalition
with seeking to rig the election, and that the Rapid Action
Battalion was created to eliminate opposition members.

Analysis: The toss-up

8. (SBU) The race is too close to call with confidence.
While AL incumbent Mohiuddin Chowdhury retains, by most
non-BNP accounts, greater popularity, BNP challenger Mohammed
Nasiruddin jumped back into the race in the final few days
thanks to a late surge of campaigning by senior party
leaders. The turning point for Nasiruddin may have come at a
big rally on May 8. Tariq Zia gave an emotional appeal for
support, citing the assassination of his father, President
Zia, in Chittagong in 1981 as proof of his family's blood
ties to Chittagong. The election may boil down to the
impression that PM Khaleda Zia wants to win more than Shiekh
Hasina. Zia initially excused PMO Parlimentary Affairs
Advisor S.Q. Chowdhury from joining every other BNP leader
from Chittagong from journeying to the port city to rally
behind Nasiruddin. Several days ago, however, Chowdhury told
us, the PM called to say she needed his support despite
Chowdhury need to recover from his recent heart angioplasty

9. (SBU) The Awami League is already crying foul, alleging
the fix is in. According to local journalists, Chowdhury has
already booked the local rally venue for May 11, apparently
to hold protest rallies. AL MP Suranjit Sen-Gupta claims
extravagantly that Chowdhury would win a fair election with
80 percent of the vote. With both sides predicting a voter
turnout of 65-70 percent or about 750,000, it would take a
lot of ghost voters and ballot box stuffing to make up the
difference. But if the margin is narrower, even in the ten
percent range as one AL leader told us, electoral chicanery
could give Nasiruddin the victory.

10 (SBU) The minority, mostly Hindu, vote bank is, by all
accounts, a huge 15-20 percent of the electorate. Hindus
typically turn out at 90 percent rates and are generally
believed to support Chowdhury. The AL complains, and others
confirm, that there are not one Hindu presiding officer at
any of the 577 polling centers, even though the EC drew
heavily from local teachers, about 40 percent of whom are
Hindu. The AL also says the BNP had bussed in thousands of
out-of-towners to vote fraudulently. Chowdhury beat
Nasiruddin in 1994 by about five percent, when JI and
Ershad's Jatiya Party fielded separate candidates.
Nasiruddin's backers note that Chittagong city is BNP country
-- all four MPs are BNP -- and that Nasiruddin should win
easily as the candidate of the ruling alliance.

11. (SBU) In the end, the bumper sticker version of the
candidates is that Nasiruddin campaigns on promises to bring
more resources to the city as a senior figure in the ruling
party while Chowdhury is popular for not having raised taxes.

Polling Day

12. (SBU) About 18,000 police, paramilitary, and army
personnel were deployed throughout Chittagong to provide
security for the city's 577 polling centers. Some 2,000
observers from 14 Bangladesh NGOs monitored the polls.

13. (SBU) The voting was mostly peaceful with only a few
scattered incidents and irregularities. With the cell phone
network shutdown for the day, observers noted that both sides
appear equally handicapped and unable to direct possible
disruptions. Most businesses were closed and there was light
traffic. AL party supporters reported that there were three
cases where AL supporters were misdirected away from their
voting center and/or harrassed by police. Polcouns went to
these polls and was told by on-site AL poll watchers that
there were no problems or police harrassment. Polcouns
observed that in heavily Hindu areas there was no evidence of
minorities being dissuaded from voting. BNP supporters
complained of AL thugs influencing voters but Polcouns found
no evidence of such influence.


14. (C) Almost too late, the BNP belatedly recognized that
the Chittagong race was attracting attention as a warm-up for
the general election and a referendum on the BNP's and AL's
respective popularity. Motivated into action, the PMO has
now put its prestige on the line. The last time it did that,
we got the Dhaka 10 "Festival of Fraud." At this point it
seems hard to bet against the BNP candidate, especially if
the race is close but at poll's close the race is neck and
neck. Some observers said that the AL will pull out by
mid-day but AL MP Sen-Gupta denied this rumor and as of 1600
local, by all reports, AL has kept its supporters at the
polls. Final election results expected around 1100 Tuesday