Updated: December 29, 2018 10:42:18 pm
Bangladesh goes to polls on Sunday as incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led coalition looks for a third consecutive term. Hasina, who faces anti-incumbency after being in office since 2009, faces a stiff challenge from a united opposition fighting under the banner of Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF) led by jailed ex-premier Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The JOF is led by 84-year-old Kamal Hossain, who is now its leading face in the absence of Zia, who is serving a 17-year jail term on corruption charges. Jatiya Oikya Front is an alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Hossain-led Jatiya Oikya Prokriya, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, and Nagorik Oikya.
While Hasina’s Awami League came to power in 2009 after a resounding win over BNP, its subsequent term in 2014 was a cakewalk as the Zia faction boycotted the elections. The United Opposition refused to participate in the electoral process after the government crackdown on its activists and house imprisonment of its leader Khaleda Zia.
BNP’s ally and now banned radical outfit Jamat-e-Islami’s leaders were executed for their role in 1971 war crimes and siding with Pakistan, infuriating the right-wing Islamists. As a result, voter turnout was only 22 per cent, according to Bangladesh’s Election Commission. More than half of the 300 seats in Parliament were uncontested. Dozens of people, including members of the minority Hindu community, died in post-election violence.
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Where do Awami League and Jatiya Oikya Front stand
For Hasina, the election will be a litmus test of her policies and programmes, executed during the last one decade of her uninterrupted rule. 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 push for digitisation and bringing madrasa degrees at par with those of modern education has increased employment opportunities.
One of Hasina’s headache will be the Hindu community, who form 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population, and has previously been the Awami League’s vote bank. The Hindu community is unhappy with the party since some of its MPs have engineered attacks on their property to grab them. To assuage their concerns, the Awami League has given party tickets to 18 Hindu candidates.
Many within the BNP faction believe that even if JOF wins the mandate of people, Zia won’t be able to lead the nation owing to her jail term and deteriorating health. Her son Tarique, who is in London, is also facing graft charges and may risk his independence if he decides to come back to the country.
Hence, the BNP is banking on Hossain to revive the Opposition, though he is not contesting the elections himself. Two weeks ago, Hossain allegedly came under attack near the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial as he and other alliance leaders were getting in their vehicle. The Opposition had called such attacks designed to weaken them ahead of the poll.
Despite promising to bring on a secular face this time, BNP has fielded 24 candidates from its traditional ally Jamaat-e-Islami, which was barred from contesting elections after being de-recognised by the Election Commission. BNP’s 30 per cent vote share, when combined with Jamatis’ 5 per cent, presents the Awami League with a formidable rival. But BNP fears that Hasina may not let the elections be held in a fair way, with many of its candidates alleging they were not able to hold a single public meeting.
The India factor
The anti-India narrative, which had been a substantial factor in past elections, is being downplayed this time. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League pro-India stance has helped the state reinstate healthy ties with New Delhi which were marred by BNP’s right-wing extremism. As a result, India, reversing its stand of playing an active role in its neighbour’s political arena, has not issued any statement, except for asking for “free and fair elections”.
“It’s very interesting to see that India did not get mentioned at all by the two prominent political parties during their election campaign,” an Indian diplomat in Dhaka told The Indian Express. There was some anti-India mention by one of the Islamist fringe groups, Hizbut Tahrir, but none of the leaders from either the BNP or Awami League talked up anti-India sentiments during the campaign.
Diplomats in Bangladesh believe that the BNP burnt its fingers in 2014 for its anti-India stand. As the BNP had boycotted the elections, Delhi did not push the Hasina-led Bangladesh government to hold re-elections — instead, it endorsed Hasina’s victory. That was a huge setback, which many within the BNP felt was a “blunder”.
Sabihuddin, a former diplomat and foreign affairs advisor to Khaleda Zia, told The Indian Express: “India is not a factor here this time. We should not be bothered whether BJP or Congress is in power in Delhi. Similarly, the Indian government should not bother whether the Awami League or the BNP wins the elections.”
India has worked on diplomatic ties with Bangladesh quite seriously over the last few years. This includes increased interactions between the two nations, including 10 meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, six video conferences and five telephone calls in the last five years. 19 development projects were inaugurated jointly by the two leaders, and they signed over 90 bilateral agreements in new areas like space, IT, electronics, cybersecurity, civil nuclear energy among others.
India’s development assistance to Bangladesh increased from $3 billion to $8 billion in three years. Bilateral trade has increased by 31.5 per cent from $7 billion to $9.3 billion. India has also eased the visa process for Bangladeshi nationals in India, which led to a three-fold increase in three years, from 5 lakh in 2015 to 14.5 lakh in 2018.
On Thursday, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) asked all mobile network operators to block their 3G and 4G services across the country instantly as part of what was seen as enhanced security measures. Only 2G services (both voice and data) will remain active. The order will be in place until further instructions are given.
Meanwhile, journalists covering the December 30 national election will be able to use motorcycles, the Election Commission announced. The EC withdrew the ban on motorcycles a week after imposing it, following severe criticism from journalists.
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