Bangladesh Heads For A One-Horse Electoral Race

(MENAFN- NewsIn) By K/Ceylon Today

Colombo, December 4: Bangladesh is heading for a one-horse electoral race. The country's main opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), decided to boycott the January 7, 2024 parliamentary elections in protest against Prime Minister sheikh Hasina's refusal to step down and hand over charge to a neutral Caretaker Administration to ensure free and fair elections.

Sheikh Hasina refused to hand over the government to a Caretaker because there was no constitutional provision for it, having been abolished by a constitutional
amended in 2011. It was also pointed out by Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL), with some justification, that in the past, Caretaker Administrations had not been non-partisan.


The BNP boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2014 for the same reason – that Sheikh Hasina had refused to hand over power to a Caretaker. In 2018, the BNP did contest and secure 7 out of the 300 seats. But in December 2022, its 7 MPs resigned on the
same Caretaker government issue, leaving parliament virtually entirely in the hands of the ruling Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina.

November 30 was the last date for filing nominations for the January 7, 2024 elections. But a day before that the BNP declared that it was sticking to its decision to boycott the elections.

Although there are many small parties in the race, the absence of the BNP makes the elections virtually a one-horse race.

However, in order to show the world that the elections are free and fair, the Awami League had allowed scores of its members to contest as“Independents” in competition with the official Awami League candidates.

It is not clear as to what the BNP has up its sleeve now. Will it resort to violence as it did on October 28? Or will it try to lobby with the US and other Western democracies to sanction the Hasina government to force it to quit and hold fresh elections?

The BNP ought to know that the October 28 violence had failed to yield results. It had only caused public revulsion. Its“grand rally” staged in collaboration with the radical Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami, created mayhem in the capital city of Dhaka. Widespread arson was the order of the day. BNP-Jamaat activists had violently clashed with Awami League's“demonstrators for peace”. Mobs of opposition supporters beat a police officer to death and set fire to a police hospital, attacked the Supreme Court Chief Justice's house, and assaulted journalists.

The government arrested thousands of BNP and Jamaat activists and had refused to release them. Among the incarcerated even now, is the General Secretary of the BNP.

According to the Bengali paper Prothom Alo many of the offices of the BNP across the country are locked because its cadres will not venture out for fear of being arrested.

After the foiled rally, the BNP escalated its tactics, shifting from public demonstrations to calls for nationwide strikes and blockades to paralyze transportation and trade across the country. However, the government's strong arm method worked because the BNP's calls for general strikes were ignored by the population. Observers said that at the time of economic stress people had no interest in supporting disruptive activities.

International Involvement

World and regional powers have got involved in Bangladesh's
divisive politics. Western governments are pushing for democracy and human rights and want to halt Bangladesh's lurch towards China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said that those who threatened, intimidated, attacked union leaders, labor rights defenders and labor organizations would be held accountable, threatening sanctions.

Blinken made the statement during the Rollout of the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally on November 16.

He particularly mentioned the Bangladeshi trade unionist Kalpona Akter, who is leading the garment workers' strike over wages. Blinken quoted Kalpona Atker as saying that if she was alive it was because the US embassy advocated on her behalf.

If the US imposes sanctions on Bangladeshi garment exports, it will badly affect the industry as the US accounts for over 17% of its exports and lakhs of female workers will be jobless.

In response, the Bangladesh government has been defiant. Earlier Sheikh Hasina said that if the US would not give visas
Bangladeshis would visit other countries. On the trade sanctions, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said there would be no problem if the US imposed sanctions.

India is interested in keeping Sheikh Hasina in power as she has been very cooperative, settling border issues, encouraging bilateral economic cooperation and strengthening connectivity. And most importantly, India is thankful to Sheikh Hasina for eliminating anti-Indian Islamist and ethnic terror groups on its soil.

On the other hand, India sees the BNP as an anti-India, pro-Pakistani and pro-radical Islamist party, that will gang up with its enemies to trouble it in the eastern sector. The BNP could collude with China which has a serious border issue with India.

Although India is a US ally, its policy of supporting Sheikh Hasina to the hilt clashes with the policy of the US. The US would like Bangladesh to cut all ties with China and be part of the QUAD. And, as pointed out earlier, India's interests in Bangladesh are quite different from those of the US.

India is not happy with the US-Bangladesh standoff the G20 summit in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an effort to get President Biden and Sheikh Hasina to have a pow wow. But it does seem to have worked.

The US Ambassador in Bangladesh Peter Haas continues to be a thorn on the side of Sheikh Hasina. Haas had irritated her by interacting with the BNP and also visiting the office of the Election Commissioner, which many Bangladeshis considered inappropriate for a diplomat.

The European Union's decision to abandon a full-scale election observation is seen as a validation of the BNP's election boycott.

Political circles in Dhaka said that it would have been helpful to the BNP and Bangladeshi democracy if the US had put pressure on the BNP to contest and test its popularity. Participation
would have
helped the BNP politically because boycotting elections had led to the weakening of its organizational structure. Being out of power for years, the BNP has little or nothing to claim in terms of achievements.

China is primarily interested in executing big ticket infrastructure projects in Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina has been giving them such projects without upsetting Indian sensibilities. China recently said that the elections should follow Bangladesh's constitution, a statement which the BNP said only echoed the Awami League's stance.

Russia said that Western calls for“free and fair” elections in Bangladesh were an act of“neo-colonialism.” The Russian spokesperson defined the calls as“another attempt at blatant interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”

The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released a national survey and Focus Group Discussion (FGD) study that shed light on Bangladesh's political, economic, and social dynamics. This study showed that though citizens were
pessimistic about the state of the economy and elections, the government's policies on infrastructure and development had buoyed Prime Minister Hasina's public support.

While the opposition BNP's popularity is growing and its calls for a caretaker government were breaking through, Bangladeshis appeared skeptical of its boycott strategy, the survey found.

The BNP's decision to boycott will throw its workers and voters into disarray. The vacuum thus created in the opposition space might be filled by anarchic or Islamic radical groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami. This will be detrimental to Bangladesh, India, the US and the South Asian region.




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