Bangladesh’s electoral politics is heating up with opposition parties on overdrive, to cobble together a joint national front, to take on the ruling Awami League (AL) in the forthcoming general election. The AL, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has been in power for a decade. Polling is likely to take place by the end of this year and a new government expected to assume office in January 2019. The attempt to create a coalition of opposition parties has run into the usual problems, marked by ideological cleavages, ego clashes and lack of cohesion.
Hasina has recently returned from an official visit to Saudi Arabia, after meeting Saudi leaders and signing a few MoUs, including one for military cooperation. Hasina also attended a joint parade of military contingents from 23 countries that have agreed to be part of a military alliance of Muslim countries promoted by Saudi Arabia. An official visit to Saudi Arabi, apart from furthering the bilateral agenda, is usually combined with Umrah to Makkah, Islam’s holiest city. A Saudi official visit, with meetings with the king and the crown prince, is usually taken as a good signal to voters, particularly those who are religiously inclined. Some Bangladeshi voters look upon such a visit as a cue for Saudi support for Hasina and her own piousness, though this does constitute a significant factor for most voters.
The political situation in Bangladesh has just about begun to hot up with the AL seeing some ray of hope. A recent court verdict, in the 2004 grenade attack, has convicted and sentenced several opposition BNP members, including former PM Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, the BNP’s acting-chairman. Tarique remains a fugitive from justice, living in exile in London since 2009. He was handed down a sentence of life imprisonment and 19 other accused, including two former ministers in the then BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami government, have been given the death penalty.
Khaleda Zia remains in prison serving a five-year sentence for corruption. Senior intelligence and police officials are among the 19 sentenced to death, convicted of using the Harakatul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), a religious extremist organisation, for mounting the grenade attack. This is another huge blow to the BNP, already in disarray with its leader Khaleda Zia in prison and Tarique Rahman in exile and convicted of various crimes. More recently, a court handed out a 10-year prison term to Khaleda in the Zia Orphanage Trust case. She was served a separate seven-year prison term for another alleged graft case.
With its back to the wall, the BNP has joined hands with disparate political outfits to promote a JatiyoOikyo Front or a National Unity Front. The leaders of this rather odd political coalition are former foreign minister Dr Kamal Hossain, eminent lawyer and leader of the Gono Forumor the People’s Forum. Dr Hossain’s bitter estrangement with the AL has been one of the longest political dramas in Bangladesh. The other leader is also an estranged politician, a medical doctor, Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury, a founder member of the BNP, and a former Bangladesh president. He was forced to resign by the previous BNP government. His new political party, the BikalpaDharaor the Alternate Route has led the opposition national unity effort. Other bit players are the JatiyaSamajtantrik Dal and the NagorikOikya. The BNP, with the backing of Islamist parties, has joined this front.
A rift in this opposition coalition has already weakened the challenge to the AL. The BikalpaDhara has taken a principled position to exclude the Jamaat-i-Islami and insisted the BNP joins without the baggage of the Islamist parties which are in the alliance of 18 parties led by the BNP. Dr Hossain has been more accommodative and does not mind the company of the discredited Islamist parties. This rift has already split this new opposition alliance.
The AL is also no slouch in cultivating another category of Islamists, like the Hefazatand other conservative Islamic organisations. As an election strategy this is understandable, as it helps divide the religious parties and groups. The AL’s secular sections and its other supporters are unhappy with such moves. They see such accommodation as a betrayal of the party’s founding principles and ethos. Politics everywhere makes strange bedfellows.
The main plank of the opposition national front and allied civil society groups is to whip up sentiment against the AL, propagating the thesis that the ruling party will inevitably lose in a “free and fair” election. Their demand is for Hasina to step down and allow a neutral government to conduct the election, a demand that she has rejected outright. Both sides of the political divide are projecting opinion polls which favour their respective political narrative. AL supporters have highlighted a recent public opinion survey by the US-based International Republic Institute which has assessed that public opinion has given full credit to Hasina’s stewardship of the economy. This survey suggests that public opinion is generally supportive of the policies followed by Hasina’s government.
The Hasina government has also received a ringing endorsement from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which estimates Bangladesh’s GDP growth higher than India’s, with per capita income growth running three times faster than that of India. Bangladesh, if it sustains its impressive economic growth, is poised to overtake India’s per capita income in the next two decades. Bangladesh’s promotion of the micro-credit, rising investment in education, health, empowerment of women, rising private sector investment and steady inflow of remittance have been factors in this economic success story. On social indicators, Bangladesh has been scoring higher than many countries, including India, as per international benchmarks documented by World Bank publications.
There are still huge challenges facing Bangladesh and the ruling AL government. Crony capitalism, mismanagement of banks, a divided and squabbling Election Commission are continuing problems. The Digital Security Act has raised hackles. The youth, which is hooked to the Internet, will resent the stringent provisions under which several people have been imprisoned.
The AL’s ability to sift through thousands of aspiring candidates and choose the really deserving ones is a herculean task. It needs to do a comprehensive house cleaning before the election. Parliamentarians and ministers who have not performed adequately should not be given nomination. There is generational change underway in Bangladesh and this should be reflected in the choice of candidates. The corrupt must be purged and the Hindu minority should be given more representation.
The AL is riddled with internal squabbles and this is a more pressing challenge than the fractious opposition. In this effort, the AL can count on India’s support. The past decade has seen an exemplary strengthening of bilateral ties and Hasina has steered her country’s policies skilfully despite internal challenges. India would certainly be comfortable with another five years of Sheikh Hasina as PM.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation; he is a former Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs and a former high commissioner to Bangladesh and ambassador to Thailand. The views expressed in this article are personal)