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Bangladesh General Elections 2018: What Next for the Opposition

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 31, 2018

    If democracy means peaceful political transition through the ballot, Bangladesh passed that test yesterday by successfully concluding its eleventh parliamentary election. Violence, compared to previous elections, was minimal, with 18 dead and 200 injured in clashes that were confined to a few constituencies. There was also sporadic violence in the run-up to the elections, which some critics argued was a tactic aimed at forewarning opposition supporters to stay away from the vote. The Awami League (AL) gained a comfortable majority to rule the country for the next five years. The seven seats won by the Jatiyo Oikyo Front (National Unity Front) would not be able to provide any meaningful opposition for the ‘nouka’ (Boat – the election symbol of AL) to have a smooth sailing. As the opposition mulls about a strategy going forward, what is at stake is stability and continued development (unnati r dhara), as AL has described. However, an opposition-less parliament is not conducive for the future of democracy.

    Politics of Alliance Making

    Before the election, the Awami League formed what is known as ‘Mahajot’ (Grand Alliance) with several smaller parties that have been its key allies since 2008. Though many of them were not very happy with the number of seats allotted to them as part of the grand alliance, they had little choice but to remain with the winning group. One of these was the Jatiyo Party (JP) led by former military dictator General H.M. Ershad. Unhappy with the small number of seats allocated to it, JP had fielded 145 rebel candidates, although it withdrew them before voting commenced. Earlier, it had attempted to negotiate an understanding with the AL and for that purpose Ershad had even replaced Ruhul Amin Hawaldar with Moshiur Rahman Ranga as the party’s General Secretary, but to no avail.

    Interestingly, the AL had more number of Islamic parties as part of the ‘Mahajot’ compared to the BNP, which latter is seen as a centre right party. Its electoral understanding with Hefajat-e- Islami – a madrassa based ulema coalition which had once demanded implementation of the 13-point radical Islamist agenda in 2013 – made many secularists and minorities uncomfortable. The alliance also created division within HeI, with opposition stemming from those not comfortable with an electoral understanding with AL which is not seen as an Islamic friendly party.

    The AL fielded 258 candidates and left the rest to its allies. Its main ally, the Jatiya Party, was given only 29 seats to contest. The returning officers rejected the candidature of three AL nominees. Several rebel candidates from the AL had filed nomination paper against party nominees, but most withdrew following party president Hasina’s appeal.

    The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has significantly weakened as a political party in the wake of its Chairperson being convicted on corruption charges. It formed a broad based coalition with the Jatiyo Oikyo Front (National Unity Front) under the leadership of veteran freedom fighter and eminent jurist, Dr Kamal Hossain, who was once the Law Minister and then Foreign Minister in the Mujib government and also one of the authors of the 1972 Constitution. Ironically, his decision to form an alliance with the BNP, which has Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) as an alliance partner, a party that earlier stood against the liberation of Bangladesh, raised several eyebrows. Some in Bangladesh accused Hossain of rehabilitating the ‘anti-liberation force’ by providing it legitimacy. It is true that both the BNP and the Oikyo Front led by Gono Forum (Peoples Forum) needed each other to form a formidable opposition against the ruling party, which is perceived as a common enemy by both. Not surprisingly, their agendas were different. The BNP wanted its leader, former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, released from jail. Dr Hossain underlined that his objective was to restore the people’s right to choose –a reference to the one-sided election held in 2014, in which the ruling Awami League had won 153 seats uncontested. While the BNP put out a lacklustre manifesto, the Oikyo Front had an ambitious one, which aimed at ‘restoring peoples right’ or jono gono r adhikar. The battle lines between the two major coalitions were drawn thus: pro-liberation vs anti-liberation, and development vs democracy.

    Interestingly, this election saw several appeals against the rejection of candidacy by the returning officers. Most of those rejected approached the judiciary and were successful in getting relief from the court. To cater for this contingency, the BNP filed a total of 695 nominations for 298 seats, having a second candidate in reserve in each constituency. However, 141 candidates were rejected after scrutiny by the returning officers and nearly 50 retained their candidature only after the High court ruled in their favour. In spite of such precaution, the BNP and its allies fighting on the election symbol ‘dhaner sish’ (sheaf of paddy) could not manage to retain candidates in 17 seats. Many of the candidates who were previously upazilla chairmen and resigned from the post to contest the election faced a new problem – the government refused to accept their resignation, thereby preventing them from contesting in the election.

    Most of the BNP candidates were selected by the Party’s acting Vice Chairman remotely through Skype given his continuing exile in London. The BNP and its allies also had several rounds of negotiations over seat sharing. The JeI was given only 22 seats to contest even though the party demanded more than 40. It had been allotted 32 seats in the 2008 election. However, post the war crimes trials, the BNP reduced the number of seats allotted to the JeI. It could not completely distance itself from the JeI because the latter commands 10 to 12 percentage of votes. The JeI too had filed independent candidates in 20 seats, but withdrew them in favour of the BNP, except in the Cox Bazar seat where BNP extended its support for the JeI candidate. There were 100 new faces among the BNP candidates out of the 238 seats for which the party filed nominations. The BNP had left 60 seats for its allies and extended support to two independent candidates.

    What next for the opposition

    The BNP, which did not take part in the 2014 election, had to participate in this election with the knowledge that there will be no level playing field. Non-participation meant that the party would lose its registration. It really did not have an alternate option. Its strategy was therefore to participate and fight for the restoration of a caretaker government system to conduct elections. Being out of the parliament also meant the non-availability of an institutional structure through which the opposition can engage the government.

    The opposition, as expected, has rejected the election results saying it is a ‘mockery’ and has demanded fresh election under a neutral caretaker government. It is unlikely that the Awami League will heed this demand. This was the third time the election was taking place under an incumbent government. The first one took place in 1988 under the administration of General Ershad, and was rejected by all the political parties. The second was held in January 1996 under a BNP government, which too was rejected by the opposition. That led to the incorporation of a constitutional provision for a neutral caretaker government (CTG) to conduct the general elections. This provision was subsequently set aside through the 15th amendment to the Constitution after the CTG became controversial in 2006. The then ruling BNP wanted to make Chief Justice Hasan the Chief Advisor of the interim CTG. The military backed CTG then took over in January 2007 as massive street violence rocked the country due to disagreement between the two main political parties – AL and BNP – over the CTG. Bangladesh is yet to establish an Election Commission that is seen as neutral and non-partisan and which has the confidence of the opposition to conduct a neutral and credible election. Within the election commission there were divisions and disagreements between members.

    As the Awami League celebrates its third consecutive term in power, the Kamal Hossain-led Jatiyo Oikyo Front has rejected the electoral verdict accusing the ruling party of large scale rigging. Yet, the Front does not have the strength to organize street protest. Many BNP workers are fighting cases of arson, killing, violating public order, terrorism etc. instituted against them by the police since 2014. Thousands have been arrested and are behind the bars. The BNP’s organizational structure is in shambles and it is difficult for the party to sustain any movement that could be long drawn and may lead to violence and state reprisal. The Jamaat has the cadres and strength even though many of its cadres have been arrested. But the question is who will give the leadership to anti-government agitation? If Kamal Hossain decides to give leadership, what will be his position on receiving support from the Jamaat for street battles? Many also argue that the government has complete support from the administration and law enforcement authority. A vested interest has already been created among those who have benefited from the AL rule, and it will be difficult for the opposition to break this. Development and political continuity (unnati r dhara) have their own advantage. At the moment, agitational politics may not succeed against the development story that the government has successfully weaved. People really do not have the stomach for violence, as evident from the violence unleashed by the opposition in 2015 which led to the death of nearly 150 people.

    It remains to be seen whether AL in its third term will be able to address the issue of rampant corruption that has deeply permeated the governance structure as well as the issue of free speech that many believe the ICT Act has impaired. Another challenging task involves addressing the youth bulge and the demand for jobs. The Awami League needs to learn from the quota protest and the student protest to address the challenge of youth unrest.

    Smruti S Pattanaik is currently affiliated to the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Dhaka.