At Dhaka’s iconic Suhrawardy Udyan, the Bangladesh Awami League held its 22nd National Council on December 24. In the presence of thousands of councillors, leaders and activists, Sheikh Hasina Wazed was elected president of the Awami League for the 10th consecutive time.
With the general elections due to be held in December 2023 or January 2024, Hasina is seeking to win a fifth term overall and a fourth consecutive term as the prime minister of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s voters elect 300 members to its unicameral national parliament, who then vote to elect 50 women parliamentarians, to ensure their adequate representation. The ‘Jatiya Sangsad’ of 350 members elects a prime minister.
Hasina is the world’s longest-serving female head of government in history.
Out of power since 2006, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia – has been organising a series of rallies across the country over the past few weeks. The party has demanded the dissolution of parliament and a neutral interim caretaker government.
The primary demand of the BNP is the withdrawal of cases against its party chief Zia and her son Tarique Rahman.
Zia, who has twice been prime minister, was convicted in a graft case in February 2018. In 2019, she was released for medical treatment, reportedly on Hasina’s instructions. In the following year, the government through an executive order released her for six months on the condition that she will stay at her home in Dhaka and not leave the country.
Since her release, Zia, now 76, has refrained from making any political moves. Any attempt to re-enter politics would mean a return to jail.
BNP acting chief Rahman – who was sentenced to life imprisonment over a 2004 assassination attempt on Hasina – has been leading a fugitive life in London for more than a decade now. Other prominent party members are either abroad or facing jail sentences for corruption or extremism.
In 2014, BNP activists carried out systematic bombings on religious minorities, resulting in the worst election violence to date.
The party’s dismal performance in the 2018 elections proved that its leaders had lost both support and sympathy. But this time around, BNP’s remaining leadership appears divided over its poll strategy, and even over whether it will contest the polls.
Bereft of leadership, the party was unable to position itself in leading movements like the 2013 Shahbag protests, which demanded a death sentence for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah or the Hefazat-e-Islam’s counter-protest movement, which reflected the politics of religious fundamentalism in the country.
While the BNP failed to display any electoral expediency, the Awami League drew support from the Hefazat-e-Islam, an organisation of radical clerics from Qawmi madrasas, by allowing a few concessions.
In 2018, the Hefazat conferred Hasina with the epithet ‘Mother of the Qawmi’ for allowing the recognition of degrees from the Qawmi madrassas. However, the secular Awami League could not continue this alliance of convenience and has since taken a tough stance against the Hefazat leaders.
The death of its amirs, Ahmad Shafi and Junaid Babunagari, will impact the ability of this hardline group to sway the radical madrassa voters as it did in the previous election.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, infamous for opposing the Liberation war and a key ally of the BNP, was stripped of its registration ahead of the 2018 election.
It is trying to re-enter the poll fray by fielding proxies, and registering itself as the ‘Bangladesh Development Party’. However, this is not the first time that the party has tried to re-enter the political process by changing its name. In 2020, it launched the ‘Amar Bangladesh Party’. It also did an about-face, declaring that the 1971 war was a significant platform of national consensus.
Separately, the BNP has proposed reforms to ensure that ‘no individual will be eligible to serve as the president or prime minister of the country for more than two consecutive terms’. It has also been demanding the formation of an interim government to oversee the next general.
But in the early 90s, when Hasina had demanded the constitution of a non-partisan interim government to oversee the elections, Zia’s government was emphatically against it. The constitutional provision of the interim government was introduced in 1996, and as per the Opposition, the Awami League ended it in 2011. But while it lasted it didn’t exactly guarantee peaceful elections.
When the BNP completed its tenure in 2006, violent disagreements over the composition of the caretaker government between the two major political parties led to a volatile situation. The January 2007 elections had to be cancelled, and former President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency. The caretaker government itself was accused of abuse of power and partisan politics.
The Awami League government has reasoned that in the previous elections, a caretaker government was needed because the Election Commission (EC) never had a legal basis in Bangladesh. But in January 2022, the country passed a new law legalising the formation of the EC. Under the law, a committee was formed for the appointment of the chief election commissioner (CEC) and election commissioners.
The new law was introduced at a time when the election credibility in Bangladesh was under question.
Moreover, the arbitrary appointment of CECs and election commissioners had cast doubts on the fairness of elections in Bangladesh. There were allegations that election laws were being interpreted differently by different commissioners.
Former defence secretary, Kazi Habibul Awal, is the new CEC.
In the past, Bangladesh has accused Pakistan of interference in its domestic affairs. With Jamaat and its radical student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, trying to register as new proxies, the EC must take extra care in scrutinising the documents.
As electioneering heats up, there are fears that the BNP and Jamaat will combine to launch a campaign of massive street violence similar to the 2014 polls. In the absence of defining leadership, a lack of a definitive political direction, and inadequate public support, the best the BNP can hope for is a breakdown of law and order, an effort at tarnishing the election process.
Hasina’s critics have accused her of authoritarianism. There are also concerns over arbitrary arrests and harassment of opposition groups. But what works for her is the transformative change that the Awami League government has brought to the country, exhibiting a commitment for long-term development.
Additionally, Bangladesh’s economy has performed remarkably. Surveys by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) indicate that Hasina’s government is popular but there are increasing concerns about corruption.
The possibility of anti-incumbency that the Awami League might face will be offset by the lack of support the BNP has because of poll violence it had unleashed in the past.
Having cleverly balanced relations with India and China, Hasina’s re-election as prime minister suits Bangladesh’s two largest investment partners. If it acts upon the allegations of corruption and high-handedness, with the structural reforms and its commitment to long-term economic development, the Awami League is the only real contender in Bangladesh’s next general elections.
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs.