August 2023

Who will take poll position?

As general elections approach, Bangladesh’s ruling party is determined to hold on to power while the opposition is feeling buoyant about its prospects. Syed Badrul Ahsan reports

The political opposition in Bangladesh is in an upbeat mood. Since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a probable imposition of sanctions on the country’s politicians, bureaucrats and others, should the forthcoming elections – touted for later this year or early the next – fail to be free and transparent, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies have been actively seeking public support for their demand that the polls be conducted by a neutral caretaker government.

However, the problem with that demand is that the provision for a caretaker government was abolished through a constitutional act by the current Awami League administration in 2015. Moreover, ruling party leaders have endlessly insisted there will be no restoration of the caretaker system and that voting will take place under an election-time government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking individuals from the United States and the European Union have visited Dhaka – with more such visits expected – whose clear objective is to ensure a level playing field for all political parties at the polls.

It will be recalled that the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, has been in office since January 2009 – a long period in terms of Bangladesh’s history. During these 14 years, the economy, despite the ravages caused by the coronavirus, has made remarkable progress. Agricultural production has been on an upward trend, while industrialisation has developed apace and infrastructure, especially where communication is concerned, has seen impressive advancements. The Padma Bridge is just one instance of such progress, with similar growth already in the pipeline in other sectors of the economy.

RANK CORRUPTION: Begum Para in Toronto, Canada

The government has expended efforts in developing electricity across the country. Additionally, the Rooppur nuclear power plant has been a priority project. The readymade garment industry has been flourishing, and remittances by Bangladeshi migrants abroad have been contributing to the national economy. In an overall sense, Bangladesh is today poised to make a leap from LDC status to that of a middle income country in 2026.

On the flipside, however, there have been problems relating to governance in the country. The prevalence of such draconian measures as the Digital Security Act has been a blight, given that it has been employed in a number of instances to suppress expression of free opinion, particularly in the media. Then there is the matter of corruption, with powerful elements siphoning off resources abroad. A blatant instance of this is the existence of such Bangladeshi expatriate localities as the so-called Begum Para in Toronto, Canada. Homes owned abroad by Bangladesh’s politicians, bureaucrats and others, in the names of their spouses and children, have long been the subject of discussion back home. Money laundering has also proved unstoppable.

The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, has been in office since January 2009

Even as the economy has been demonstrating a certain degree of resilience and strength, the widening gap between the affluent and middle/poor sections of the population has certainly not escaped notice. Tens of thousands of young people graduate from Bangladesh’s universities every year, with few prospects of employment. Those who can move abroad to developed countries for higher education and eventual resettlement. Some, along with people from other nations, have in recent times tried to travel illegally to Europe, with tragic consequences.

Politically, Bangladesh remains divided right down the middle, with the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP upholding clearly divergent ideologies. The BNP, which left office at the end of its term in October 2006, remains notorious for projecting a brand of politics that militates against the history of Bangladesh as it was forged during the country’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971. During its years in power, the BNP chose to impose a false narrative of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, as opposed to Bengali nationalism, on the country. It airbrushed the country’s independence leaders from national history and attempted to convey the misplaced notion that its founder, Bangladesh’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman, had declared Bangladesh’s independence in March 1971.

Politically, Bangladesh remains divided right down the middle

The BNP has never made any attempt to reconsider its politics. There has never been an internal review of the reasons behind its exclusion from power since 2006, nor has there been any move by party leaders to come to terms with the realities associated with the country’s history. It has never condemned the assassinations of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his political associates in 1975, and neither has it acknowledged that incorporating the infamous indemnity ordinance in Bangladesh’s constitution by the regime of its founder, preventing any trial of the assassins, was a politically disastrous step.

And yet it is an emboldened BNP we see today, confident of a return to power, provided, in its view, the elections are transparent. A major difficulty for the party, though, is an absence of leadership. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, its chairperson, is currently barred from politics and under house arrest in Dhaka, having been convicted for corruption. Her son Tarique Rahman, himself a fugitive from justice in Bangladesh, operates as the party’s acting chairperson from London, where he was sent into exile by the last military-backed caretaker government.

For its part, the government remains firm in its position that the elections will be held on its watch. Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues, though rattled by the US visa-related announcement, have given precious little sign that their government will buckle in the face of Western pressure. Indeed, ties between the ruling Awami League and the West, especially Washington, have been historically wary, and have certainly never been close.

Khaleda Zia waving to activists as she arrives for a rally in Dhaka
BNP chairperson and former PM Khaleda Zia is currently barred from politics

In the early 1970s, the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the current prime minister’s father, did not enjoy the best of relations with Washington. In similar manner, the nationalistic policies of the Sheikh Hasina administration have not endeared her to the West. Yet despite this, she has provided strong and focused leadership for the country. It is this capital on which her party seeks to obtain another term in office.

For now, therefore, the question of who follows Sheikh Hasina as Bangladesh’s leader is irrelevant. She is the heart and soul of the party, and within the country she is emblematic of firm and purposeful leadership. Whether all of this will be enough to win the Awami League a fresh new period in office remains to be seen.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad