With barely a few months left for Bangladesh’s parliament polls, there seems to be growing uncertainties about whether they will be held on schedule in January 2024.
There are strong indications of violent street protests that the Islamist opposition is likely to launched in late October, may be around the time Bengali Hindus celebrate their biggest festival Durga Puja.
The Puja is celebrated robustly not only by Hindus but by secular Muslims, specially liberal women who wear new clothes during the festival. But Islamist hardliners occassionally attack Puja pandals, break idols and beat up Hindus, even loot valuables from temples.
Perhaps anticipating such vandalism which the opposition may use to drive a wedge between the ruling Awami League and their main backer India, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is taking no chances, mindful of such rioting two years ago.
“Not only border guards and armed police are being deployed in sensitive pockets, the army is kept on high alert,” said a senior National Security official, but on condition of strict anonymity.
The Hasina government has cancelled two signature events of the army this winter — the December 16 Victory Day parade to mark the defeat of Pakistan’s army in the 1971 civil war and the January winter exercises.
“This was done after consultation with army top brass in anticipation of what is likely to happen,” said a military official but without elaborating.
The government perhaps anticipates a sharp downturn in law and order, were the opposition led street agitation backed by US and Western allies to spin out of control.
The US has already issued sanctions against 7 top law enforcement official including a former police chief Benazir Ahmed but Dhaka’s grapevine is agog with stories of more sanctions, including some against leading members of the Prime Minister’s family and her inner circle of corrupt businessmen who are alleged to have defrauded the country of billions through extensive bank defaults and money-laundering.
A Bangladesh banker P K Haldar is reported to have recently told Indian enforcement agencies that the Prime Minister’s son Sajeeb Wajed Joy had allegedly accepted Rs 1500 crores ( 20 million US dollars) in bribes from top businessman S Alam. Joy is also alleged to have links in business deals with the son of Prime Minister’s private investment adviser Salman F Rahman. He has strongly denied the charges made in multiple media reports in India and elsewhere.
His aunt and Hasina’s sister Sheikh Rehana has also faced similar charges with an Europe-based Bangladesh-related website accusing her of “using for free” a mansion bought by Rahman’s son.
Much as these allegations sit uneasily on the ruling party and its top family in an election year, it helps the Islamist opposition fuel the anti-incumbency factor to corner the Awami League, now nearly fifteen years in power.
But two factors raise the level of uncertainty over the January 2024 polls — the determination of the lead opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP not to contest the polls without a neutral caretaker in power to conduct the polls and the near-total backing for that demand by US and European Union because the Western nations cannot see Hasina holding a fair election in view of the way the last two parliament polls were held in 2013-14 and 2018-19.
Hasina is determined to hold the polls under the present dispensation, the way they are held in all democracies.
“The caretaker arrangement had to be discontinued because it was horribly misused by an unelected military-backed dispensation and there is no reason for it to be brought back,” says Awami League central executive committee member Tarana Halim. “Does the opposition think they are Nostradamus that they can predict elections going unfair.”
Halim, an ace lawyer herself, also lambasted US envoy Peter Haas for unleashing the “sanction scare” on Bangladesh. “How can he threaten sanctions against media and then talk of media freedom in same breath,” Halim said.
But much backroom activity between power brokers representing different parties and stakeholders seems to be afoot, some parleys reported even in Delhi to strike compromise formulas. Moves are afoot to explore possibilities of a multi-party government, minus Hasina’s close confidantes and those of BNP supremo Khaleda Zia, that can supervise conduct of polls with the Election Commission running the show and the army taking care of law and order.
As the polls draw closer, there seems to be a resurgence of Islamist radicalism with both major parties, ruling Awami League and main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) , looking to cement alliances with smaller right-wing Islamic groups.
Anticipating a tough challenge in the upcoming election from the BNP-JAMAAT alliance, the Awami League is seeking an electoral understanding with an Islamist coalition named Liberal Islamic Alliance comprising six Islamic and like-minded political parties formed on September 1.
As the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition has been joined by leading Islamic parties in calling for a boycott of the upcoming polls unless they are held under a neutral caretaker dispensation, the Awami League is keen to get the Liberal Islamic Alliance (LIA) to participate in the polls to be able to claim that the polls were inclusive.
The six Islamic parties, newly registered with the Election Commission, that make up the LIA are Bangladesh Supreme Party led by Syed Saifuddin Ahmed Maizbhandari, Bangladesh Islami Oikya Jote led by Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury, Krishak Sramik Party led by Farhanaz Haque, Aashiqeen-e-Awlia Oikya Parishad led by Alam Noori Sureshwari, Bangladesh Janodal and National Awami Party (NAP Bhashani).
The LIA’s formal launch will be made from a rally on October 21 at the south gate of Baitul Mukarram national mosque, where the Islamist alliance plans to gather over 3 lakh people, said LIA insiders.
But the LIA insiders say the alliance is also expecting a large number of leaders from Islamist groups like the Islami Andolon Bangladesh (IAB), Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, Khilafat Andolan, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam and Bangladesh Nezami Islami Party to come over to their fold and contest polls.
At the moment, 44 political parties, 14 of them Islamist parties, are registered with the Election Commission, a mandatory condition for contesting in any election.
The participation of some of these Islamist parties in the election will help the ruling party to portray the polls as participatory in the absence of opposition BNP and other major Islamist parties.
The Jamaat-e-Islami is playing it smartly. On the one hand, they may field hundreds of candidates by hijacking the LIA which is led by a woman, but on the other hand, they plan to join the BNP and other Islamist Opposition groups in violent street protests to back the caretaker demand. If the Awamis ward off the agitation and return to power, they will still manage a substantial parliamentary presence under cover of LIA. If Hasina succumbs to street power, the Jamaat can hope to ride to power with BNP through the caretaker route.