Election Scenario Hotting Up In Bangladesh

As Bangladesh braces for fresh general elections expected in December, the political heat in the country is rising. Parties on both sides of the political divide are busy engaging in alliance-building exercises.

The political chess board in Bangladesh at present comprises of the ruling Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who heads a 14-party alliance; the main opposition Jatiya Party headed by former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad helms a combine of at least 58 parties and the opposition outside parliament, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party spearheaded by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leads a 20-party alliance formed in 2012.

If the prospects of a united opposition to take on the Awami League, which is in power for about a decade, had looked bleak till a few weeks ago, it has now become a reality. Recently, former Awami League stalwart Kamal Hossain shared the dais with leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and launched the ‘Jatiyo Oikkyo Front’, or National Unity Front, along with two other minor players Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and Nagorik Oikya.

But the fissures in the opposition camp are glaring from day one. Hossain’s comrade-in-arms till the other day, A.Q.M. Badruddoza Chowdhury, one of the founders of BNP, was conspicuous by his absence after being in the forefront of the efforts for opposition unity. Baddrudoza, heading Bikalpadhara (Alternative Stream) outfit had set a condition that he would not make common cause with BNP unless it snapped ties with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami which was de-registered as a political party after several of its leaders were convicted for war crimes and genocide during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971.

The Jatiyo Oikkyo Front has emerged as a big political necessity for BNP as its’ other alliance partners lack mass base and are trying to stay relevant in Bangladeshi politics piggybacking on BNP. For BNP, this has come at a time when it is under increasing pressure after the ailing Khaleda Zia and her son and Tareq, widely tipped to take over the mantle of the party, have been convicted for graft. Begum Zia is imprisoned in Dhaka while her son is exiled in London ever since he the military-backed caretaker government in 2007 sent him there. Adding to BNP’s woes is the recent conviction of a number of its leaders for planning and executing a conspiracy to eliminate the Awami League top-brass through a series of grenade explosions in August 2004. The court sentenced to death several persons including senior BNP leader Lutfozzaman Babar and has slapped the exiled Tareq Zia with a 17-year prison term.

However, the opposition alliance should not worry; the Awami League itself is grappling with many issues of governance and is fighting anti-incumbency accumulated over the last nine years. Sheikh Hasina’s government could have handled the issue of former Bangladesh Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, the first Hindu Chief Justice of Bangladesh, now living in the US. Justice Sinha was virtually forced out of the country after he was accused of several charges by the ruling Awami League. The Bangladesh media is also angry with the Hasina government over the ‘Digital Security Act’ which is seen as a threat to media freedom despite repeated assurances that journalists have nothing to fear.

The coming polls in Bangladesh have aroused considerable interest in India, as the ties between the two countries have scaled new heights across a range of areas during the last decade. India has invested heavily in political and economic terms in Bangladesh and wholeheartedly backed Sheikh Hasina’s leadership in turning around her country’s economy and the bilateral relations with New Delhi. The latest manifestation of India’s economic capital came last month, when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated through video conferencing, a clutch of India-funded connectivity projects and a cross-border oil supply scheme.

Script: Pallab Bhattacharya, Political Commentator