After a gap of over a decade, Bangladesh is again in the midst of a high voltage electoral battle. With the country’s main Opposition, Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) deciding to participate in the 11th parliamentary election — unlike its 2014 election boycott which gave the Awami League (AL) helmed by Sheikh Hasina a walkover — this face-off is going to be a close one. This is because the BNP’s traditional ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, though barred now from contesting elections after being de-recognised by the Election Commission, has put its full weight behind the BNP. To present a united face, the BNP has also nominated 24 Jamatis as its candidates, including former razakars who fought against the Liberation War.
Pakistan-supported and funded Jamatis have not forgiven Hasina for sending its top leaders to the gallows for 1971 war crimes, and have resolved to defeat the AL at any cost. Its 5 per cent national voteshare, when added to the BNP’s assured vote share of over 30 per cent, presents the AL with a formidable rival. This combination has been gathering strength alongside Bangladesh’s legal luminary Dr Kamal Hossain and his four-party coalition, Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF). Hossain making common electoral cause with the BNP-JI combine has stunned the country’s secularists and Bengali nationalists. His desperate bid to promote the interest of this pro-Pak alliance has made many wonder if he is acting as Islamabad’s proxy. For instance, his replacing JOF candidates’ poll symbol, the rising sun, with that of the sheaf of paddy (BNP-JI), is being viewed as an attempt to reposition JOF’s identity vis-a-vis the pro-Pakistan combine, in order to highlight that his front and the Begum Zia-led coalition’s objectives are identical.
For Hasina, the election will be a litmus test of her policies and programmes, executed during the last one decade of her uninterrupted rule. This should positively impact the poll outcome, but she is weighed down by anti-incumbency factors, mostly corruption related, involving her party MPs and ministers. The irony is that the BNP has an even worse image when it comes to corruption and terror. Zia is serving a long jail term for embezzlement while her son, Tareq Zia, number two in the party, has also been sentenced to jail for money laundering on a massive scale. As a result, both, according to a court ruling, have been barred from contesting elections. However, former AL heavyweight and Sheikh Mujibur’s law minister and confidant, Hossain, and his JOF joining hands with the BNP-Jamaat “to rid the country of Hasina’s misrule” is still an imposing challenge. Former Chief Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury says Islamabad’s prodding made Hossain change sides as Pakistan is keen to recover lost ground in Bangladesh. Hossain, with his deep American and Pakistani connections, was their natural choice. The fact that he had personal scores to settle with Hasina for not giving him his due in her party and the government was well-known. And, the Pakistanis thought that the election is one last opportunity of using Hossain to unseat Hasina.
The Americans are also averse to Hasina for not letting them build a deep sea port in one of the off-shore islands, which would have enabled an overwhelming US presence in the Bay of Bengal to counter the growing Chinese naval intrusion in that area. The US thinks that if Zia’s alliance wins, she would meet this particular American wish.
The flip side of Hossain’s switchover is that he has become the target for both the AL and BNP. While the AL calls him a “traitor”, those in the BNP-JI call him an “AL Trojan Horse”, out to rob them of their chance of gaining power. They allege that Hossain switched sides to become the BNP alliance’s prime ministerial face to deny Tareq Zia his rightful claim.
BNP leaders say Zia’s failing health may not make her an effective prime minister, which might also have acted as motivation for Hossain. There is also a strong anti-Tareq lobby in the BNP which is determined to stop him in his quest for greater power.
The BNP’s greatest weakness is that, organisationally, it is in disarray. For an election-oriented party, boycotting the 2014 polls was suicidal, as its organisational structure not only went into hibernation, but it also faced a slew of defections, making it dysfunctional.
The AL’s trump card is the way Hasina has brought about her country’s socio-economic transformation, almost boosting Bangladesh from being a “least developed” country to a developing nation. Her policies have made Bangladesh’s socio-economic indices the best among South Asian nations and her development strategy has become the model for Least Developed Countries. Her digitalisation of Bangladesh has resonated with over a million voters of the new generation who will be voting for the first time this year.
Bringing madrasa degrees at par with those of modern education has allowed the prospect of more jobs to madrasa passouts, thus winning their hearts and minds. Her electoral alliance with half a dozen Islamic parties and groups, like Hefajat-E-Islam, should garner more Muslim votes for the Awami League-led front. But her wooing of Islamic parties, achieved through significant compromises, has astonished even her staunch admirers.
One of Hasina’s worries is that the Hindus, 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population, which has always served as the AL’s vote bank, are unhappy with the party. This is because some of its MPs have engineered attacks on their property in order to grab them. To assuage their sense of hurt, the AL has given party tickets to 18 Hindu candidates.
Hasina has addressed most of their major grievances, providing them many windows of opportunity to prosper. The BNP, well known for its notorious anti-Hindu stance, is also making desperate efforts to woo minorities. It has raised the number of its Hindu candidates to 14 from four in 2008 and floated the Hindu Mahajote to split Hindu votes. Since parliamentary elections in Bangladesh are often won by narrow margins, votes of minority communities have become very crucial in this election. Another challenge for Hasina is how to dissuade 79 of her rebel party men — who have filed their nominations as independents — to withdraw from the contest.
The upcoming election will decide whether Bangladeshis will vote Hasina to power for the third consecutive term to keep the country on course for some measure of development, or opt for “paribartan’’ (change) by voting the BNP-Jamaat-JOF alliance to power.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.
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