By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh’s main opposition party and a group of centrist parties vowed Sunday to participate in the Dec. 23 general election, posing the first electoral challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in 10 years.
Kamal Hossain, leader of the Jatiya Oikya Front (National United Front), made the announcement during a news conference in Dhaka three days after authorities declared the date of nationwide parliamentary polls in which Hasina is seeking a fourth term as prime minister.
“Despite prevailing unfavorable conditions, the Jatiya Oikya Front has decided to participate in the election as part of its movement to restore democracy,” Hossain, an 81-year-old former law and foreign minister, said in a statement at the National Press Club.
Hossain’s much-anticipated announcement followed days of intense meetings between the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Oikya Front after the government rejected the opposition’s list of demands, including the creation of a neutral caretaker administration that would run the country during the electoral period. The ruling party said those demands were unconstitutional.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP secretary-general, read aloud a statement from Hossain, who was seated next to him.
BNP chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been in jail since Feb. 8 after her conviction in two corruption cases. Her eldest son and the party’s acting head, Tarique Rahman, is on a self-imposed exile in London. He was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison in October over a 2004 grenade attack on Hasina.
Opposition leaders and their supporters who were present at the news conference cheered after hearing the decision to contest the polls.
“Both Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman support the decision to participate in the polls,” Jafrullah Chowdhury, BNP supporter and NUF leader, told BenarNews.
Hasina regained power after opposition’s boycott
Hasina, 71, served her first term as prime minister from 1996 to 2001. Her Awami League party and its Grand Alliance, involving a total of 14 parties, won the general election in December 2008. She regained power in 2014 after BNP and its partners in the opposition boycotted the general election in protest of the ruling party’s refusal to cede the reins of government to a caretaker administration during that year’s voting season.
As a result, BNP holds no seats in the current parliament, which has a friendly 34-member “opposition” bloc, whose leader is an adviser to Hasina. Awami League and its allies hold 250 seats, and independent MPs occupy 16 elected seats. Fifty other seats are held by appointed MPs.
Hossain demanded that the election commission move the election date by another month, preferably in January next year, giving the opposition enough time to campaign and discuss seat-sharing among candidates.
But Hossan did not explain what measures the opposition would take if the government decided to reject their latest demand.
The ruling party welcomed the opposition’s decision to contest the elections.
“We welcome the decision,” Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, an organizing secretary of the ruling Awami League, told BenarNews. “Good sense prevailed on them.”