By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh will hold national polls on Jan. 7, the Election Commission announced Wednesday, despite a tense atmosphere marked by rolling anti-government protests and mass arrests of opposition activists.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) denounced the plan and called for a two-day strike next week, while the ruling Awami League, which has held power for 14 years, welcomed the decision and mobilized celebratory processions in Dhaka.
“On behalf of the Election Commission, I urge all political parties to avoid resorting to conflict and violence and seek a political resolution,” Kazi Habibul Awal, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner, said as he announced the date in a televised address.
“It’s not impossible to reach a compromise and resolution through dialogue by avoiding mutual distrust and vengeance.”
Awal noted that the government repeatedly “vowed to ensure free, fair, neutral, inclusive and peaceful elections.”
Reacting within minutes of the announcement, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP’s senior joint secretary, called it “ridiculous.”
“The government must shoulder the responsibility of the serious conditions,” he said. “The government has been pushing the country toward confrontation. The people’s movement will march on and the government must step down.”
As recently as Monday, a U.S. State Department official’s letter encouraged Bangladesh’s major political parties to engage in dialogue without preconditions.
However, Obaidul Quader, the Awami League’s general secretary, told reporters after meeting with U.S. Ambassador Peter Hass on Wednesday that the time for dialogue was over.
“We did say we would consider holding dialogues if the BNP dropped all demands,” he said. “But that time has passed now.”
For months, the BNP has organized protest rallies and, following the disruption of its grand rally on Oct. 28 by deadly clashes with the police, has called for repeated strikes and transportation blockades.
The party has demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the Awami League, resign to make way for a neutral interim government to shepherd the election.
Throughout the protests, clashes between the police, ruling party activists, and opposition activists led to the deaths of at least 10 people.
Police also conducted mass arrests of thousands of opposition activists, including the party’s secretary general and other top officials, according to local media reports.
On Wednesday, supporters of both parties clashed in the northern district of Bogura, injuring at least 20, said Babu Kumar Saha, police chief in the district’s Sherpur area.
In the immediate aftermath of the election commission’s announcement, BNP supporters mobilized rallies in several other districts and clashed with the police.
A leftist alliance, Democracy Platform, called for a half-day strike on Thursday.
In a similar vein, Islami Andolan Bangladesh, an Islamic party not aligned with the opposition, organized a rally heading toward the commission’s headquarters.
“The election schedule that was announced without having a neutral government in place will never be accepted by the people of this country,” Syed Muhammad Rezaul Karim, a cleric and the party’s chief, told reporters.
In contrast, hundreds of Awami League supporters mobilized a celebratory procession in front of the party headquarters and elsewhere in Dhaka.
“Sheikh Hasina need not be afraid,” they chanted in Bengali. “We have not abandoned the streets.”
Jatiya Party, another major party previously aligned with the government, repeatedly called for dialogue to break the current impasse. Its leaders have yet to announce whether they will participate in the elections.
Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a former professor at Chittagong University, told BenarNews the formal announcement shows the government wants to proceed with the election while preserving the status quo.
“Now that the election schedule is announced, the scope for a political settlement is very slim unless the government unexpectedly offers something acceptable to the opposition,” he told BenarNews on Wednesday.
“If the government fails to gain the opposition’s confidence, it could lead to another election without the main opposition parties, which would be detrimental for the country.”
He also warned that continued strikes, blockades and violence could precipitate an economic collapse, with the general public bearing the brunt of the suffering.
Bangladesh’s current political stalemate centers around the opposition’s demand for the resignation of the Awami League government ahead of the election so a non-partisan government could organize the polling functions.
But the ruling party rejected the suggestion of an interim government, calling it “unconstitutional.”
The caretaker government – a technocratic government normally led by a former Supreme Court chief judge with the exclusive mandate to hold elections – was introduced in Bangladesh after the end of military rule in the early 1990s and subsequently inserted into the constitution in 1996. The four elections held under a caretaker system were considered by independent observers to be relatively free and credible.
In 2007, however, a military-backed caretaker government not only extended its term beyond the standard 90-day election period to over a year but also jailed many politicians from both parties, including leaders of both parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, on alleged corruption charges.
After the Awami League returned to power in 2009 with a supermajority in the parliament, it abolished the system from the constitution, citing its potential for abuse, following an order from the Supreme Court. Critics say the government hurriedly moved to implement the verbal court order while ignoring a temporary exception that the court ruling granted for two terms.
The next two elections during Hasina’s tenure have been called controversial.
In 2014, the opposition boycotted the polls, leaving the ruling party to win more than half of the parliamentary seats uncontested.
In 2018, despite the opposition’s participation under a grand alliance of left- and right-wing parties, the ruling party and its allies secured over 95% of the seats amid widespread reports of fraud.