The story so far: On October 28, during a rally organised by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the chief Opposition party of Bangladesh, a fight broke out between the BNP cadre and law enforcement officials which led to the death of a policeman and incidents of arson. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina responded by jailing most of the top Opposition leaders of BNP including Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. This confrontation came in the backdrop of the long pending demand of the BNP to hold elections under a ‘caretaker’ government. It has refused to participate in any other election even as the Election Commission of Bangladesh announced the poll date for January 7.
Why is the BNP boycotting the election?
BNP leaders have maintained that they will not participate in the election of January 7 as they do not feel the elections will be free and fair under the Awami League government. However, the party did not clarify how they hope this strategy of boycott would help them in attaining their goal of capturing political power in Bangladesh. The party has been out of power since it was defeated in the 2009 election, and considers its boycott of elections as a form of protest which may delegitimise the election of January 7.
While the BNP has a major street presence in Bangladesh, with active units in all the districts and subdivisions of the country, it is just one of the 14 parties that are boycotting the election while 26 others are participating. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been claiming that the poll will be legitimate as a lot of other political parties, including the Jatiyo Party (Monju), are expected to participate in the election. Critics have pointed out that apart from the Awami League, most of the parties in the fray are “small” indicating that they would not be in a position to throw a challenge to the ruling Awami League. Much will depend on PM Hasina’s personal commitment to ensuring democratic participation even if the election is held without the BNP.
Will the elections be free and fair?
The Sheikh Hasina government has welcomed international observers to come and observe the election process for themselves. Foreign Secretary Masud bin Momen visited Delhi to interact with foreign diplomats and invited them to be present on ground in Bangladesh to witness the election assuring that the Government of Sheikh Hasina remains committed to conducting a free and fair election. However, an election without BNP can not be described as a real contest as this would be a repeat of the 2014 elections when BNP did not participate. BNP has been demanding polls under a caretaker government but the Awami League has stated that the law does not permit that kind of arrangement.
The U.S. and the European Union among others have been increasing pressure on Bangladesh to hold a free and transparent election. This was opposed by Russia and China who have said that the U.S. is trying to meddle in the democratic process of another country. While India has maintained silence, it has indirectly conveyed it prefers the affairs of Bangladesh to be left to its own people.
How is a BNP-less election expected to affect Bangladesh?
Over the past fifteen years, BNP’s top leaders like Tarique Rahman have been based out of the country. There is also a growing impression that the continued dominance of Mr. Rahman over BNP is preventing dialogue between the Awami League and BNP.
The party has also been led by leaders like Alamgir, Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury and other members of the Standing Committee. However, overall, the party has been ceding space to the Islamist hardline when it comes to street presence. Its agitations have been taken over by Islamist hardliners like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Chhatra Shibir. There is fear that in the absence of the BNP, the Islamist groups of Bangladesh may step up to fill the void left by the party.
Will there be violence?
The government of Sheikh Hasina has been largely successful in maintaining peace and stability in Bangladesh so far. Some commentators like The Daily Star of Dhaka has predicted that the election is “all but doomed” but this is unlikely to trigger violence between the cadre of the two sides. There is however a danger of violence by Islamist organisations if things spiral out of control.