Politics of confrontation
BNP-Awami League rivalry is at fever pitch ahead of Bangladesh’s next general elections, as the government faces a raft of political and socio-economic woes. Syed Badrul Ahsan reports
Politics is once again at the forefront of social life in Bangladesh. With fresh general elections expected by early 2024, the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party are predictably locked in a debate over how the elections will be conducted. The BNP – which has not been in power since October 2006, its fortunes having undergone drastic changes since then – has been demanding that the government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, resign and hand over power to an interim administration that will oversee the voting in 2024.
The Awami League has, of course, rejected the suggestion on the grounds that the caretaker system, which in earlier times was brought in so elections could be conducted freely and without question, no longer exists. Quite some years ago, the provision of a caretaker government was repealed by the present government, which fundamentally means that Sheikh Hasina is in little mood to have it restored.
The BNP is clearly not satisfied. In recent weeks it has been holding well-attended public rallies in major towns and cities across Bangladesh to demand that the forthcoming elections be held without the Awami League remaining in office in the run-up to the vote. In mid-December, all six BNP lawmakers submitted their resignations to Shirin Sharmeen Chowdhury, Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad, the Bangladesh parliament – an act designed to increase pressure on the government to accept the BNP’s demand for a caretaker government.
Meanwhile, ailing BNP chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia remains under house arrest. Her deputy, none other than her son Tarique Rahman, is in London, where he has been in exile since being forced to leave the country during the period of the last interim government 15 years ago. Numerous charges have been levelled against him, which makes it hard for him to return home; the government would happily carry out the sentences pronounced on him over the past several years.
A major concern for the current administration is the economy. The country’s foreign reserves have been getting depleted, although the Prime Minister has repeatedly informed the nation that there is no cause for concern because, in her words, Bangladesh has enough money for life to go on as usual. Even so, the worries remain, with economists serving repeated warnings that the authorities need to be extremely cautious with spending, given that the global economy is not in good shape either.
Negotiations are ongoing between the government and the IMF, from which it has sought a loan of $4.5 billion. Prices of essential commodities – rice, meat, cooking oil, vegetables – have been on the rise, with the poor and middle classes unable to make ends meet. Factories have made workers redundant and many such establishments have shut down. The garments industry, Bangladesh’s major export window, is in danger, with orders from foreign buyers in a state of decline. Meanwhile, mega projects undertaken by the government are being implemented, the latest being the construction of a bridge, with the country’s domestic resources, across the River Padma.
That said, the government has been under pressure over the issue of Rohingya refugees, more than a million of them, in view of the fact that the Myanmar authorities have taken no steps to ensure their safe return home to Rakhine state. The refugees, in camps at the seaside town of Cox’s Bazar and the island of Bhashan Char, will, sooner rather than later, turn out to be not only a drain on Bangladesh’s economy but, as a few incidents have recently shown, vulnerable to criminal acts.
In the realm of foreign affairs, Bangladesh enjoys, as it always has since its 1971 War of Liberation, steady and friendly ties with India. Its relations with China and Russia are stable, with both Moscow and Beijing engaging in expanding economic cooperation with Dhaka. Relations with Pakistan, however, remain fraught, with Islamabad yet to take steps towards tendering a formal apology to Bangladesh over the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in 1971. A particular worry is the clear slide in ties between the United States and Bangladesh, especially in light of what Dhaka perceives as undue interference by Washington in its internal politics.
The US ambassador in Dhaka recently visited the home of a Bangladeshi citizen who serves as a spokesperson for the families of individuals who have disappeared in recent years. At that very moment, a crowd of people demanding justice for those killed or disappeared in the times of Bangladesh’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman, turned up at the place, forcing the US envoy to beat a hasty retreat. Add to that the fact that last year the US authorities imposed sanctions on some serving and former officials of the police department and the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Lobbying by Dhaka to have the sanctions lifted has yielded little result.
This has caused the Bangladesh authorities no end of embarrassment. In addition, worries remain in the country around such issues as the Digital Security Act, a draconian law which patently impedes the expression of free speech by the media. Journalists have been detained under the law, though the government has repeatedly denied that it is being abused or misused.
The ruling party has been accused of an inability to tolerate opposition, the most recent example cited in this context being the arrest of Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP, and his senior party colleague Mirza Abbas. The two men, denied bail, remain behind bars.
Bangladesh has just marked the 51st anniversary of its emergence as a sovereign state, but its politics remains warped, given the riotous experience it has endured – coups, counter-coups, leadership antithetical to the original spirit of the movement for independence – following the assassinations of its founding leaders in 1975.
The present government headed by Sheikh Hasina has had to cope with the issue of Islamist militancy. While its efforts in this regard have been successful, it cannot be guaranteed that extremists will not rear their heads again in future. The government and the nation will need to remain in a state of high alert.
For now, besides tackling the wide range of problems before it, the current administration must offer reassurances that the elections scheduled for January 2024 will be held in a credible, free and transparent manner.
With questions even now swirling around the polls that took place in 2014 and 2018, the government cannot afford to face similar queries as the people of Bangladesh prepare, once again, to head for the ballot box.
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