What to Look for Ahead of the 11th National Election?

Mahtab Uddin Chowdhury | 25 January 2023
No image

During a public rally in Cox Bazar, the prime minister and also the president of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, announced the next general election in Bangladesh will take place in the first week of January 2024. Despite her announcement, there is still huge speculation about the exact date of the election, considering several factors influence the whole procedure. More importantly, there remains uncertainty regarding the election method and pattern as well. Although the Awami League is determined to make it happen for the third time in a row as the ruling party, the biggest opponent, the BNP, appears more solid and confident this time to ensure they will not allow the government to run the election while strongly demanding a caretaker government. Thus, the path to the next general election appears to be clouded.

Through the 15th Amendment, the Awami League government abolished the caretaker government system in 2011. As the opposition party in parliament at the time, the BNP strongly condemned the Awami League's approach and decided to reintroduce the system through a series of powerful field movements. Since then, the political situation has deteriorated in terms of national elections. In 2014, the BNP stayed out of the process, claiming that there could be no fair elections under the ruling party. They changed their minds and formed an alliance led by Dr. Kamal Hossain in the next election, but they were soundly defeated. Following the election's condemnation by various national and international stakeholders, the BNP attempted to justify their absence in 2014 by demonstrating to the world that a fair and inclusive election could never be held under the ruling government.

In a parliamentary democracy, a national election is considered the steer to get into power. Ahead of the election, every party, particularly the larger political parties, tries to attract smaller groups by offering various incentives to reach a consensus with them. Different Islamic political groups that represent a small proportion of voters are frequently prioritized over the general time. Last year, the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) requested the bank details of Charmonai Pir Mufti Sayed Muhammad Fayzul Karim, the senior Naybe-e Amir of Islami Andolan Bangladesh and a vocal critic of the government and the demanding caretaker government. According to the party leaders of that group, this has been done to keep the party under pressure ahead of the elections. In the most recent Rangpur mayor election, candidate Amiruzzaman Pial from the same party received 43,689 votes, placing second after the Jatiyo Party candidate and defeating an independent and an Awami League candidate. Deep down, many experts see it as a demonstration of what the Awami League could offer to the Islamic parties. Despite ideological differences, the BNP has recently been seen collaborating with various leftist groups to accelerate their movements for a caretaker government. Therefore, this is one of the important areas to see how the two leading parties embarrass the Islamic and leftist political groups.

The Jatiya Party, which has been the parliament's opposition since 2014, has been heavily criticized for taking many dramatic stances during election campaigns. Since the passing of their founding chairman, General Ershad, his younger brother, the current party head, GM Qader, seems to have reshuffled the party. His bold move was to try to remove Raushan Ershad as the head of the opposition in the parliament while sending a letter to the speaker by opposition Chief Whip Mashiur Rahman Ranga. However, the strategy failed because the government reportedly supported the pro-Raushan group while placing GM Qader under a temporary ban via a high court order. Although the ban was lifted, it eventually helped the anti-Qader group regain confidence within the party. Moreover, as another general election is upcoming, it would be hard to speculate on what conditions the Jatiya Party would ring the bell for the Awami League or if there is anything the BNP can offer to target the Jatiya Party for an election-time political alliance.

After failing to depose the Awami League through protests or elections under alliances in the previous two terms, the BNP appeared to be pushing harder this time to stay on track while learning from previous mistakes. They announced a 10-point demand during a mass rally in Dhaka on December 10, 2022. Furthermore, all of their running MPs resigned, stating that they could no longer be a part of this illegal parliament. During a meeting, last August, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that the BNP would be allowed to protest while ensuring that no one would be arrested. Since then, it seemed to that the BNP had gained momentum and the movements were accelerating. However, she failed to keep her promise seeing as, just before their mass rally in Dhaka division, many of their top leaders, including Mirza Fakhrul and Mirza Abbas, were arrested and then released on bail after a month. The challenge for the BNP now is to continue the protest while almost one lakh cases against 37 lahks BNP activists have been filed claimed by their standing committee leader, Mosharraf Hossain. Although it has been reported that other parties from the 20-party alliances have formed coalitions to join the BNP in this anti-government protest at the same time. But it is unclear how far these coalitions can go or what capability these parties have to create a threatening situation against the Awami League. It was reported in 2014 that several efforts were made by government individuals and agencies to break the BNP apart. Without a doubt, the government would employ this strategy again should the opportunity arise. Most recently, the BNP removed Abdus Sattar Bhuiyan from all positions for "violating party decisions and engaging in anti-party activities" after he decided to run in the Brahmanbaria-2 by-election. Following his announcement to contest in the election, the Awami League withdrew their candidacy, leaving space for Mr. Sattar. The drama justifies the government's intention to bridge the rifts within the BNP by supporting their leaders who would go against party decisions, and it would not be surprising to see more such cases in the near future. As a result, this is yet another major challenge that the BNP may have to face in the coming days. Nonetheless, if the BNP fails to engage the masses in this journey, all of its efforts will be in vain. As a result, they must develop a manifesto emphasizing pro-people agendas that guarantee a better governance system and stable economic conditions for citizens.

Despite the criticism leveled at the BNP for its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islam, the two organizations have been partnering with each other since 1999. Despite the criticism and pressure from various parties during the prosecution of many central Jamaat leaders for allegations of war crimes, the BNP stuck to their plan to remain with them. Meanwhile, in the last general election, Jamaat used the BNP symbol to contest the election after its registration was canceled by a high court order. However, their coalition appears to have underperformed in anti-government movements since then. While expressing dissatisfaction with the activity of the alliances, Jamaat Chief Shafiqur Rahman stated in August that "we would now participate in politics alone." Although later on it was claimed to be his personal opinion, the issue remains indecisive. Now it looks like the protest might go on simultaneously, but whether the BNP will take the risk of losing the vote bank that Jamaat-e-Islam owns, and whether Jamaat-e-Islam will have the courage to go alone until the next election, keeping in mind that they will be unable to participate in the contest under their own party symbol, remains to be seen.

Without a doubt, the Awami League has been heavily criticized for how the previous two elections were conducted under them, with numerous allegations of vote rigging and irregularities. But, in both cases, they found a way out by outplaying their main opponent, the BNP, and surviving under extreme external pressure. Despite making significant economic progress, the Awami League government has also been criticized for a variety of reasons, including accusations of corruption, money laundering, human rights violations, and a lack of democratic transparency. The government is accused of mismanaging the economy, which resulted in higher inflation, threatening the livelihoods of the lower and lower-middle classes. As the election approaches in the coming year, they will undoubtedly seek economic solutions to provide better living conditions for the masses. Another consideration for them is how they will survive and thrive not only on a global scale of power rivalry but also in the interests of both China and India. Since the sanction imposed by the United States on some law enforcement personnel, the human rights situation has reportedly improved in comparison to the pre-sanction period. While it has been indicated by different sources that the government is afraid of new sanctions, the pressure is still on to stop human rights violations and ensure a level playing field during the election period. The Russia-Ukraine war has revealed systematic flaws across many sectors of our economy, and unfortunately, there is no sign of an end to the war, inflation is rising, the bank liquidity crisis is affecting businesses, and foreign debt is at an all-time high. The Awami League is Bangladesh's oldest political party, and it has seen many ups and downs since its inception. However, they have demonstrated on occasion how to deal with internal and external pressures. But this time, it is different.

When it comes to the general election, the Election Commission is generally the center of attention since it is one of the most essential stakeholders in the process. Since taking office, the current election commission has appeared to be proactive in engaging political parties, civil society, and other relevant groups in the discussion process. However, they lost the trust of many groups, including the BNP, when they decided to use EVMs in around 150 seats in the next general election. Although the fund crisis halts the EVM buying plan, the main issue to be discussed is whether they have enough capacity to hold a free and fair election under the umbrella of the ruling party.

The majority of people in this country were unable to vote in the last two national elections. It is debatable who is to blame for this situation, but what is more important here is to understand that people in Bangladesh undoubtedly want to vote. The EC estimates that approximately 8 lakh new voters will be registered in the next election. Imagine a parliamentary democracy in which you do not allow your new generation to vote and those who represent you at the highest levels of government are not elected by you. Furthermore, an unaccountable parliament and an exclusive policy breed a culture of injustice, corruption, and violence. Finally, the most significant question lies in why a fair and participatory election is necessary. If we look at our surroundings, we can clearly relate to the answer. 

Mahtab Uddin Chowdhury, Research Assistant, Centre for Governance Studies. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.