POLITICS in Bangladesh is on the roller coaster. The announcement by Jatiya Oikya Front, or the National Unity Front, that it will participate in the elections has come as a relief for those who did not want politics to slide towards dangerous uncertainties. In fact, before the Unity Front that includes the BNP decided to go to the elections, there were apprehensions that the ruling party would try to force one-sided, non-participatory elections like the one in 2014. A great deal of credit for the current relief in Bangladesh’s politics must go to the octogenarian politician Dr Kamal Hossain and the parties that have come together under his leadership. Khaleda Zia had earlier given her nod to her party’s joining the Unity Front and now the approval to participate in the election with the alliance.
The prime minister also contributed to the present relief in politics. After contemptuously rejecting the BNP’s demand for elections under a non-party government together with the dissolution of the 10th parliament, she eventually agreed to talk with the opposition but only after she was assured that the talks would not be with the BNP directly but with the Unity Front in which the BNP would be a part and not the leader. The ruling party, however, diluted the talks by bringing in HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party to the talks separately and later the Bikalpa Dhara party led by Badruddoza Chowdhury. Ershad is a special envoy of this government and the Jatiya Party is the ruling party’s loyal opposition.
The inclusion of the Jatiya Party and the Bikalpa Dhara left no one in doubt that the ruling party went through the motions of talks perhaps under pressure of the external players in Bangladesh’s politics. Talks with the Jatiya Party and Bikalpa Dhara also made it obvious that the ruling party had no intention of holding the elections under a neutral, non-party government and/or dissolving the 10th parliament before the elections or freeing Khaleda Zia. The chief election commissioner destroyed the faintest of hopes that the ruling party would relent on the main issues by his indecent haste to announce the date of the elections. Nevertheless, the talks helped politics from sliding towards the danger line and over it.
The Unity Front perhaps agreed to go for the polls under an election-time government to be headed by the incumbent prime minister because it sensed that its unity has had a positive impact on the people that could help it win even if held the way the ruling party wanted. Kamal Hossain, nevertheless, made it clear that if the Unity Front finds that the ruling party/Election Commission’s promise for a level playing for the elections was a false one, it would withdraw and continue with its movement to force the ruling party to ensure a level playing field. Kamal Hossain explained that the decision to participate in the elections was conditional.
There were many in the BNP leadership and supporters at the grass roots who were disappointed that the party did not participate in the 2014 elections. They felt that they had enough support at the grass roots to challenge the ruling party’s blueprint for returning to power. That blueprint was to manipulate elections in the usual ways that the party in power that does not want to leave takes such as manipulating elections through rigging, stamping ballots illegally, casting false votes, intimidating opposition voters, et cetera with the support and assistance of a pliant EC, politicised civil bureaucracy and law enforcing agencies.
The odds, nevertheless, were heavily stacked against the BNP in 2014, both on the domestic and international fronts. The foreign powers and India were convinced by the AL argument that a vote for the BNP was a vote for terrorism, extremism and Islamic fundamentalism. They, therefore, stood aside and watched India interfere in the elections on the side of the Awami League. India interfered for a variety of reasons but the most important one was the fact that it needed another AL term for the fulfilment of its two vital interests in Bangladesh, namely dismantling all anti-Indian security threats from Bangladesh soil and securing land transit for which Bangladesh had signed the agreement but for which the infrastructure was incomplete.
The BNP was pushed further into a very tight corner leading in 2013–2014 with the Shahbagh movement and the trials of the war criminals. Its alliance with Jamaat was also a very big negative factor because the vast majority of the people hated Jamaat. And, the BNP also made a number of serious mistakes in politics leading to the elections with major divisions within the party where a significant section of the party’s leadership at the centre remained inactive as the activists outside Dhaka at the grass roots fought the ruling party’s law enforcement agencies and its armed cadres unsuccessfully.
The political scenario at present is a great deal different. A paradigm shift has occurred with the BNP’s decision to contest which will ensure that the ruling party will not have a cakewalk in the elections. And meanwhile, the BNP has distanced from Jamaat to join the Unity Front that will be well received by the voters outside the Awami League. The BNP will also benefit from the Unity Front’s impeccable pro-liberation credentials and alliance, in turn, will gain from the BNP’s mass support. Together they should, provided the playing field remains reasonably level, give the ruling party a fight that they will find tough to overcome.
The fight of opposition will be assisted because the international context has likewise changed dramatically. Foreign powers including India have stated firmly that they would like the coming elections to be free, fair and participated by all the political parties. Terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism are not factors for them to take sides in Bangladesh politics any more whose benefits went to the Awami League at the direct expense of the BNP in 2013–14. The BNP’s decision to carry out their movement for elections under non-party government peacefully despite the incarceration of Khaleda Zia, withdrawal of almost all democratic space from them, arrests of their party leaders/activists, etcetera has cleared from them all the questions that they had faced in 2014. In addition, there is a groundswell of disaffection against the ruling party at the grass roots.
The BNP/Unity Front, therefore, may have caught the ruling party by surprise by agreeing to go for the elections with not one of their seven-point demands even considered let alone accepted. Perhaps, the former believes that with the paradigm shift in the domestic and international contexts for holding the next elections compared to those that existed in 2013–2014, they can successfully fight the ruling party even with elections under the present prime minister and with the Election Commission biased in its favour and the politicized civil bureaucracy and the law enforcing agencies prepared to help the ruling party return to power.
The decision of the BNP/Unity Front to go for the elections has put them and the Awami League on a roller-coaster ride because at this stage one thing is certain. The next elections will not be anything like the 2014 elections. The two sides will have to fight it out with the voters. However, there is an element in the context of the coming elections that was absent in 2014. This time, the Awami League by the admission of some of its own leaders fear for their lives if they lose, a fear that may not be unfounded. Therefore, there is widespread apprehension that the ruling party may be tempted to interfere in the elections so that the results do not go against it.
There is another development that the ruling party, perhaps, did not expect. Election fever is taking over the country where not too long ago fear had accompanied every step of the opposition leaders and activists in public, particularly those belonging to the BNP. The scene before the BNP office at Naya Paltan before the BNP/Unity Front’s decision to participate and now is unbelievable. Before, the very few BNP leaders/activists who dared go there to their party’s office at Naya Paltan praying they would not be taken to custody by the law enforcement agencies. Now that fear has suddenly dissipated that will give the BNP/Unity Front the courage and strength with the vast majority of the people on their side to challenge the Election Commission; the law enforcement agencies and the civil administration if they attempt to turn the playing field in favour of the ruling party where it will be futile for them to participate.
Postscript: Electronic voting machines will be used partially but enough if misused to change the results. The Election Commission has not cleared with the voters about its applicability and the opposition is totally opposed to it. This adds another big question mark on the intention of the Election Commission to be fair in the forthcoming elections.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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