Dec 2022

High stakes, big issues

As Bangladeshis face economic turmoil in the wake of the pandemic and war in Ukraine, Sudha Ramachandran reflects on imminent clashes between the government and its opponents

Bangladesh appears to be on the brink of a violent face-off between government forces and the opposition.

The country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), plans to hold a massive rally in the capital Dhaka on December 10. Jittery over the likely success of the rally, the ruling Awami League (AL) has already stepped up crackdowns on BNP activists.

Since early October, when it first announced the Dhaka rally, the BNP has been holding public rallies in various cities. These have drawn large crowds, despite government efforts to disrupt them.

This is the first time in 13 years of AL rule that the BNP has been able to mobilise people on such a scale.

Since the AL came to power over a decade ago, it has cracked down on its political rivals, especially the BNP and its Islamist allies. Their leaders, including BNP chairperson and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, have been jailed on corruption charges.

Sheikh-Hasina-Wazed-2012
Rapid growth under Sheikh Hasina has bestowed ‘legitimacy’ on her government

Although the BNP has been ‘politically active’ all these years, ‘state repression and a lack of visionary leadership’ stood in the way of its ability to mobilise the masses, Shafi Md Mostofa Assistant Professor at Dhaka University, told Asian Affairs.

Elections held in 2014 and 2018under the AL government were widely denounced as not free or fair. Although the AL government came to power through questionable means, it was successful in turning around the economy. The rapid growth of infrastructure development and the manufacturing sector contributed to Bangladesh emerging as the fastest growing economy in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Asian Development Bank. Rapid growth under Sheikh Hasina has bestowed ‘legitimacy’ on her government, according to Mostofa.

The Bangladeshi public have long seemed willing to overlook the democratic backslide in return for economic development. However, things have changed in recent months.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have heavily impacted Bangladesh’s economy. The value of the taka is plummeting and foreign reserves are shrinking. In August, the government raised the price of fuel by 50 per cent, contributing to a sharp surge in the cost of essential commodities. This has brought people out into city streets to protest against the AL administration’s policies. People in rural areas, too, are unhappy with the government, says Mostofa.

The AL government was successful in turning around the economy

It is this mass frustration with economic woes that the BNP is now seeking to exploit as it prepares for general elections scheduled for December 2023.

Over the past decade or so, the BNP has been out of sync with the mood of the Bangladeshi public. During the Shahbag protests of 2013, when the country was convulsed by mass mobilisations over the secular/religious question, the BNP was nowhere to be seen. The issues it focused on in its2018 election campaign were corruption and the decline in democracy under AL rule.

But the BNP was hardly in a position to take on the AL over corruption, given that its entire top brass was in jail on corruption charges. And since the economy was doing well, the BNP’s attack on the AL’s crushing of dissent failed to strike a chord with voters.

However, today, with the economy in crisis, the BNP may have found itself a strong issue through which to mobilise the masses against the AL government.

But it will need to tread carefully. It must avoid being seen as a disruptive party, whose political activity involves nothing more than protests that only serve to disrupt people’s daily lives.

Relations between the Awami League and BNP have long-been acrimonious

In 2013, Bangladesh was roiled in relentless waves of violent protests, processions and strikes. Instead of using parliament to discuss and debate issues, the BNP-led opposition boycotted it and took to the streets. BNP activists burned buses and hurled bombs. The violent shutdowns, which continued for weeks on end, paralysed daily life. The economy ground to a halt; shutdowns are said to have cost the garment sector losses to the tune of $25 million per day that year.

When the BNP announced a boycott of the 2014 elections, as it was being held under the AL government and not a caretaker administration, its decision evoked little sympathy from the people.

The BNP, therefore, will have to ensure that its planned protest rallies and marches do not disrupt lives and livelihoods this time around. Bangladeshis are already struggling to make ends meet, so strikes and shutdowns that prevent people from earning a living will receive little support.

Relations between the Awami League and the BNP have long-been acrimonious. Shut out from power for 13 years, the latter has been languishing on the sidelines of Bangladesh’s politics. But the economic crisis has provided it with a powerful weapon against the government.

people students protesting in Dhaka street in Aug. 2022 over fuel price hikes
FUELLING ANGER: Protesters on the streets of Dhaka in August this year

Meanwhile, the AL is determined to remain at the helm. Although it is under pressure to ensure that elections in 2023 are free and fair, it will be tempted to resort to old tricks to manipulate the outcome. It will be tempted, too, to provoke the BNP into boycotting the poll.

The stakes are high and both sides will be tempted to turn to violence. The AL is expected to prevent the BNP from holding the Dhaka rally, which would likely prompt the BNP to protest violently. The AL government will then use force to crush the opposition.

In light of these probable scenarios, the Dhaka rally will provide pointers to the future of Bangladesh’s democracy.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in