A day after election-related talks between the Jatiya Oikkyo Front (National United Front) and the Awami League government collapsed, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appeared to be close to taking a decision in favour of taking part in elections to the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly), the dates for which were fixed for December 23.
The advancing of the polls by five crucial days—the poll panel had earlier indicated that the elections would be held on December 27 or 28—seemed to have caught the BNP, the most important constituent of the Dr Kamal Hossain-led National United Front.
According to a knowledgeable BNP sources, the four-member poll panel’s announcement on the evening of November 8 seemingly stunned the party’s senior-level hierarchy, including a truncated standing committee, which could not even issue a public statement after a meeting that lasted slightly over an hour, in Dhaka’s Gulshan neighbourhood. The BNP, senior party sources admitted, was constrained by time to quick get its act together in the event of it taking part in the elections.
An official statement by BNP secretary-general Mirza FakhrulIslam Alamgir is expected on November 10 after a meeting of the National United Front following the alliance’s Rajshahi rally on November 9. Alamgir, however, said after the poll date was announced that “this is meant to hold a one-sided election”.
Earlier in the day, a visibly alarmed Alamgir dashed off from his Uttara residence when reports came in that BNP supremo Begum Khaleda Zia would be shifted from a Dhaka hospital, where she was undergoing treatment, to the prison in Nazimuddin road.
BNP insiders interpreted their leader’s dispatch to a prison as a “hardening of stand” by the Sheikh Hasina government, especially when her release on bail was high up on the National United Front’s talks agenda.
A pall of gloom was said to have descended on the BNP’s standing committee, one of whose members disclosed that the “body language” of his colleagues on the powerful panel “suggested that they would take part in the polls” even as there is general admission that widespread government action over the past few months had “vastly depleted organisational strength” across most parts of Bangladesh. Senior party leaders claimed that the Hasina government “has mounted a concerted attack on the BNP’s district-level leaders and cadres with the aim to cripple the organisational structure.”
Senior BNP sources admitted that the EC’s announcement that nomination papers must be filed by November 19 and the date of withdrawal fixed for November 22 will work against the party which will get “too small a window” to bring together senior leaders and its associated machinery to take decisions of nominating candidates.
When asked whether the BNP was in a position to select and declare the names of candidates for all 300 seats, a standing committee member put up a brave front, saying, “yes, we can and will do so”. BNP insiders indicated that the party has “little option but to take part in the polls” because there is serious apprehension among senior leaders that “not participating in the polls, irrespective of the outcome, might cause organisational fracture at a time when the party is “going through trying times”.
The day AL rejected the National United Front’s demand for putting in place a caretaker government, leave alone the prime minister stepping down to pave the way for any other Awami League leader to take her place when the poll process begins, Dr Hossain said, “we are trying to have in place a proper election and we will continue to do so”, before adding that the “polls should take place in a congenial and peaceful atmosphere, that it is the government’s responsibility to guarantee this and that the ball is in its (government’s) court”. Dr Hossain did not issue any statement after the poll dates were announced. However, insiders understand that the JatiyaOikkya Front is still hopeful of ‘some understanding’ with the government.