Bangladesh elections: Crackdown on oppn, as Hasina accuses US of interference

Awami League leaders say the country does not need Western ‘godfathers’, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says she will talk with the opposition if President Biden speaks to Trump

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, who has refused dialogue with the opposition amid rising violence and turmoil (photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, who has refused dialogue with the opposition amid rising violence and turmoil (photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Subir Bhaumik

Bangladesh's ageing, ailing but combative prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has lashed out at the country's Islamist opposition and their 'global patrons' (read: the US), ruling out any discussion on how to hold the next parliamentary elections.

Hasina also warned opposition parties of severe consequences unless they refrained from the violence that was unleashed on Saturday, 28 October.

As protesters continued to burn down public transport and attacked police stations to enforce a three-day countrywide blockade — aimed at paralysing the administration and pressuring Hasina to step down, paving the way for a neutral caretaker to conduct the polls — the prime minister told a press conference that "there is no question of a dialogue over the conduct of polls".

The US ambassador in Dhaka, Peter Haas, has strongly pitched for a dialogue between the ruling Awami League government and the Islamist opposition (consisting of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami) to set the stage for what he described as "fair and peaceful elections to restore Bangladesh's fledgling democracy".

Another 12 envoys, including those from Japan and South Korea, which have invested millions in the country's infrastructure, as well as Canada and Australia, also appealed for "restraint” from all stakeholders after violence erupted in Dhaka and spread to the rest of the country.

A similar message seems to have been given by senior US officials to PM Hasina's adviser Salman F Rahman on his recent visit to US.

"I will hold a dialogue with the Opposition if President Biden and former President Trump hold a dialogue," said Hasina tersely, in a direct attack on what Awami League leaders described as "increasing US interference" in Bangladesh's domestic affairs.

"Let me make it clear, the caretaker system has been ended by Parliament because of its misuse during 2006–08, and there is no way we will bring it back. If polls can be held under ruling dispensations in all democracies like US and India, the same can happen in Bangladesh," the prime minister said.

At least six people, including one policeman, have been killed so far and nearly 500 injured in clashes between the police and Awami League supporters on one hand and the Opposition activists on the other since Saturday.

Terrorised citizens have been forced indoors. Trade and businesses have been affected by the violence.

"My government will not stay silent if the violence continues. All troublemakers will be picked up and punished," warned Hasina, often called the 'Iron Lady' for the way she fought against Opposition violence before the last two elections and returned to power.

But the Opposition and its Western backers in turn allege that the polls were "largely rigged" and "less than fair".

The Islamist Opposition now appears to be on warpath, trying to enforce a three-day countrywide blockade (31 October to 2 November) on their one-point demand that the Awami League government should step down immediately and give way to a neutral caretaker administration to hold the Parliament polls due in January 2024.

The Islamist Opposition coalition of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami have pitched the blockade as the beginning of a do-or-die struggle to oust the Awami League, which has been in power for three terms (nearly 15 years) now.

"If the Awami League remains in power, the country will have remain a one-party-state with a democratic facade. So, this is not just about ousting Awami League from power but about saving Bangladesh's fledgling democracy," said senior BNP leader Mirza Abbas.

Awami League's central committee member Tarana Halim, a former actor-playwright and lawyer, countered by saying, "BNP–Jamaat are the antithesis of democracy. I was stabbed and nearly killed, as were so many of our leaders when they came to power in 2001. They tried to liquidate our entire central leadership, including Sheikh Hasina, in 2004. They believe in Pakistani-style of eliminating opponents."

Halim also lashed out at US envoy Peter Haas, calling him "the chief advisor of BNP–Jamaat coalition".

The Opposition is short of leaders, so there is an obvious vacancy for Mr (Peter) Haas, but we will resist all US interference to subvert our hard-won freedom.
Tarana Halim, Awami League leader

For the Awami League too, it is a battle for existence, just as it is for the Islamist Opposition.

"If the Awami League loses the parliament polls in January, there will be a bloodbath like during 2001–06 BNP–Jamaat rule. Thousands of party leaders and activists will have to flee the country, surely from their own areas of activity. If the Opposition loses, it will surely be the end of BNP as a party," says Sukharanjan Dasgupta, veteran journalist and author of several books on Bangladesh politics.

Dasgupta believes that the Awami League, which has traditionally been strong in the streets due to its own long years in the Opposition and having waged agitations, is now organisationally weaker because of being in power for the last 15 years — during which corruption has become endemic and the party’s connect to the grassroots seriously eroded.

There was large-scale corruption over issuing party nominations for parliament seats in the 2018 polls, when hundreds of tickets for the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad were given out to those who could pay fat bribes to powerbrokers yet had no grassroot presence or track record in party organisations.

The most powerful of these powerbrokers is from Hasina's immediate family, and is strongly backed by a powerful adviser doubling up as foreign and home minister.

"Those who could pay millions were not the traditional Bengali middle-class leadership dominating the Awami League, but nouveau riche first-generation traders or corrupt retired bureaucrats. These elements can never win a fair poll, so they resorted to unfair means to win," says Dasgupta.

The party's dependence on police, bureaucrats and criminals stems from its systematic sidelining of its popular traditional middle-class leadership, increasingly targeted by moneybags-turned-lawmakers.

"The Awamis have increasingly relied on the support of police and security forces to win the street battles. That is why on Saturday, the Opposition went for the police," concurs former Indian Intelligence Bureau official B. Ghosh, who has closely followed Bangladesh for three decades.

"The Opposition plan is to demoralise the police and security forces through targeted street violence and then terrorise common people by random attacks on public transport and commuters," Halim alleges, "And then if the police retaliate, they have their American godfathers to sanction their senior officials."

The US issued sanctions against seven senior security officials, including former police chief Benazir Ahmed in December 2021, and even kept Bangladesh out of its Democracy Summits. "Since then, the US have threatened sanctions and issued visa restrictions against officials and politicians to rattle the Hasina regime," says Ghosh.

"We don't need western godfathers to promote our cause because we are a proud Bengali nation with an anti-imperialist history and not a colony of any big power, US or China," said Halim.

One Zahidul Arefi turned up at the BNP party headquarters on Saturday and addressed the media in the presence of senior party leaders, claiming he was an 'adviser' to US president Joe Biden. On Sunday, he was arrested at Dhaka airport while trying to leave the country.

The BNP's Abbas, who was taken into custody with other senior party leaders on Sunday, 29 October, for "instigating violence", alleges that Prime Minister Hasina had ordered a crackdown after Saturday's agitation to create a climate of fear, which is aimed at "setting the stage for yet another rigged election".

BNP leaders are pointing to the 365 new police vacancies created just before the elections. "These new recruits will all be from the Awami Youth League ranks, who will be ruthless on the Opposition," alleged BNP's Goyeshwar Roy.

"In the last few years, hardcore Islamists and rich business cronies have surrounded Hasina and made it into coterie. That has led to Islamisation of the polity on one hand and rampant corruption on the other," says a Left leader.

India too is not happy over the recent developments. New Delhi has piled on the pressure for a purge of the Islamist–trader lobby and is pitching for taking the Awami League leadership back to its traditional Bengali middle-class roots — but not with much success so far.

But with the US and its Western allies gunning for Hasina on a plank of human rights and democracy, the Iron Lady is looking towards New Delhi for help. Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen actually admitted to "requesting Delhi to help Awami League stay in power" following a trip to the Indian capital.

For India, a stable, peaceful and economically growing Bangladesh is a must, especially for the sake of its own eastern and north-eastern states on the shared border.

The Hasina government suited its strategic and economic interests on the whole, but if it is undermined by internal weakness like corruption and external pressure from the West, New Delhi will have cause to worry. And it clearly cannot afford for its most reliable ally in South Asia to drift towards China.

On Wednesday, 1 November, Hasina's daughter Saima Wajed Putul,  a clinical psychologist and autism adviser to the WHO chief, secured a nomination as World Health Organization director of its Southeast Asia region. She edged out the challenger from Nepal with India's help, in a clear signal that India will back Hasina again.

This is also being seen as an indication that perhaps Putul, and not son Sajeed Wajed Joy, will be Hasina's anointed political successor. 

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author on South Asian conflicts)

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