By Amio Bagchi
As the election approaches, Bangladesh’s domestic politics is passing through uncertainty, gradually leading towards a boiling point as parties fail to reach a mutual agreement. While the ruling Awami League (AL) government aims to hold the election under the current regime referring to it “as per the constitution”, the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is demanding a neutral caretaker system to ensure a free and fair election. The contrasting objectives and demands of the two main political parties are leading the country towards greater uncertainty and a political deadlock that may be detrimental to Bangladesh’s political and economic stability.
However, the politics this time is not only within the border and only restricted to the demands of these two parties. Owing to Bangladesh’s growing geostrategic significance and great power politics in the Indo-Pacific region, three superpowers, the US, India, and China are also involved in the regime question as they have significant stakes in Bangladesh, today and tomorrow.
The United States of America (USA) and its European allies are the most vocal international actors ahead of the upcoming general election. The US is relying on its democracy and human rights policy and has already introduced a visa restriction policy to ensure a free and fair election.
Hence, the embassies in Dhaka are passing busy days meeting with party members from all political parties, relevant institutions, and state apparatus; and assessing the future of Bangladesh and their national interest.
The US and its European allies’ advocacy for free and fair elections is inspiring the opposition to level up their activities, while the government is terming such advocacies as interference in internal issues.
For many analysts, Bangladesh’s national politics is now at an inflection point or crossroads. Currently, the opposition- BNP and its grassroots activists are more motivated than ever as they believe the US demand aligns perfectly with theirs and that the US will provide external support for their cause. While the US relies on democracy and human rights policy, its ultimate aim is to “take Bangladesh out of Chinese influence”.
At this point, it seems the US perceives the AL government as ‘pro-Chinese’ and may opt for a regime change in Bangladesh so that it can deepen its defense and military cooperation with Bangladesh. But the question remains, Will BNP- the alternative to AL, be able to provide what the US wants if it comes to power?
BNP- The Central Right Party Leaning Towards China
BNP was formed in 1978 as an ‘anti-thesis’ of the Awami League. To become an alternative platform to the Awami League, it resorted to conservatism and developed its own national identity. BNP also adopted Islamic ideals to counter AL’s secularism principle.
As AL always maintains warm relations with Delhi, BNP’s politics is largely dependent upon anti-Indian sentiment, currently running high in the country. The anti-Indian stance also helps the party to attract voters in a populist stunt. BNP’s alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami is also uncomfortable for Indian interests here. As a result, BNP is traditionally leaning toward China to counter India.
However, BNP failed to play the ‘China card’ for the long term, as the relationship deteriorated after the opening of the Taiwan Trade office in Dhaka during BNP’s rule 2001-1006. China perceived the move as an attack on its One China principle and distanced itself from the party. Later, China deepened its relations with the AL regime through development cooperation and signed a strategic partnership with Bangladesh in 2016.
Awami League- The Center-Left Balancing India and China
While the AL government deepened relations with China during its last two terms, it did not tilt solely towards it.Even after deepening relations with China, it still maintains historic and warm relations with China’s rival and AL’s all-weather friend, India.Ahead of the G20 summit, US ally and QUAD member, India has sent a diplomatic message to the US saying that weakening the AL-government is detrimental for both the US and India.
India’s move depicts that it is still reliant on Awami League over BNP in Bangladesh.Perhaps it is a unique situation, where the AL-government maintains warm ties with China and India- two rivals playing a ‘zero-sum’ game over influence in South Asian regional politics.
Can BNP Provide What the West Wants?
If BNP comes to power, it is less likely to be able to serve the Western Interest in Bangladesh. Firstly, owing to its anti-Indian politics, it will hardly have good terms with India. As a result, it will again tilt toward China to counter Indian hegemony in South Asia. Even if BNP comes to power, it may cling to the US only for a while- perhaps two or three years. After that, it will again need to tilt to China to counter Indian hegemony.
Again, the BNP is a spent force as many of its top leaders are either old or died naturally. Many of its grassroots have quit politics. The current top brass may not be able to form a strong government without proven leadership guiding them, which brings us to BNP’s leadership issue.
The Chairperson, Khaleda Zia is already 78 years old, frail, and suffering from serious health conditions passing her days under medical observation, unable to hold any office, let alone the Prime Minister’s office.
The acting Chairperson, Tarique Rahman is a controversial figure with jail terms for criminal offenses, currently living in exile in the UK. Tarique’s leadership is controversial for the international actors to provide legitimacy. Even the US itself banned Tarique citing him as a ‘national security threat’ back in 2008 for his rampant corruption as per a leaked WikiLeaks document. Hence, it will be tough for the West to provide legitimacy to Tarique Rahman’s return and ascension to power. In the absence of Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman, who will be the Prime Minister and who has the required leadership capability is a big question within the party now. For this issue, BNP has not yet announced their candidate for the Prime Minister. And lastly, owing to its anti-Indian rhetoric, BNP will have a demand for China. So, it may not deepen defense cooperation with the USA as inking such agreements would close China’s door for BNP.