The parliamentary election that is going to take place in Bangladesh on December 30, 2018, is a strange one. There hasn’t been enough level playing field between the incumbent Awami League-led alliance and the unified opposition where the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is the main political force. The former has had a clear upper hand. In normal circumstances or in another time, the BNP would probably have boycotted the election to deny the Awami League government legitimacy and would have gone for massive anti-government agitation throughout the country. They had tried it last time but it had failed in its objectives.
Before the 2014 elections, the Awami League, as suspected, scrapped the caretaker government system mentioned in the Constitution. They pretended that they wanted an all-participatory election under a Awami League caretaker government. They assessed that the BNP might boycott the election and opt for agitation to demand a re-run of the polls, just the way Awami League did in 1996. But the difference was that the Awami League, on its own, has always had far better organisational strength than the BNP which depends on the Jamaat-e-Islami for grassroot-level political muscle.
The Awami League knew that. By 2014, Jamaat’s strength had been substantially depleted as the Awami League government tried and hanged much of their higher leadership for war crimes in 1971 and put a sizable number of aggressive workers behind the bars through police arrests. Awami League won three-fourth majority in an one-sided election. They had planned for it and it worked clockwork. They were also able to manage the international community by pointing out the Islamist links of the BNP. India’s help was useful for Awami League government’s international acceptance and that fell broadly in line with the Asia Pivot policy of the US which pays heed to India’s opinion on South Asian matters.
After failed agitations in 2014 and 2015, many political experts opined that it was a blunder on the BNP’s part to fall into the Awami League trap by not participating in the 2014 election. So, this time, the BNP finds itself in a peculiar situation where it has no choice but to contest under an umbrella called ‘Oikya Front (Unity Front)’ while its tallest leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is in jail.
The next most important leader, her son, is living in exile in the UK. But there is no other way for the BNP. It has been out of power for more than a decade now and another election boycott would have led to its disintegration and eventual decimation. An election, under whatever circumstance, energises the party workers to some extent. This seems to be the BNP’s thinking. But what happens to the BNP after the election, if it loses badly or is forced to lose as anticipated by many, is another big question.
The progressive section of Bangladesh’s people never accepted BNP as an alternative to the secular Awami League due to the former’s Islamist connections, self-contradicting political ideology and distorted view of Bangladesh’s history, especially the 1971 War. In part, the Awami League’s desperation to cling on to power emanates from the fear of revenge by the BNP and the Jamaat. Jammat is widely suspected of being involved in a grenade attack on PM Sheikh Hasina in 2004 who was the leader of the Opposition then.
Performance wise, the last term of the Awami League government has been marked by high GDP growth, big visible infrastructure projects the and success in solving the power situation in the country. But on the other hand, human rights have been massively curtailed, widespread corruption has marked the banking sector and the rule has been totally authoritarian. But the Awami League has an extensive patron-client network now running into every corner of Bangladesh. They are present in every office, every institution. The Opposition is hardly visible in their constituencies and their leaders and workers have been attacked relentlessly. Numerous police arrests have also depleted their strength and confidence.
So, this election, it appears, has a foregone conclusion. An Awami League win is widely anticipated unless something dramatic happens on the election day. Popular opinion on the street remains divided. Some argue that in the context of the threat of radicalism and global terrorism, some form of a semi-authoritarian and quasi-democratic rule, with a secular ideology, is better for an unprepared Muslim-majority country of the developing world. While others maintain that democracy should not be tampered with at any cost. It’s a strange dilemma.