The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has seen an upsurge in political mobilisation in recent months, with numerous large rallies held in various divisional cities, culminating in a final mega-rally in Dhaka attended by thousands of party supporters and members of the general public. This indicates that the BNP is slowly but surely making a political comeback, especially as the ruling Awami League-led government has relaxed its chokehold on the rival party following the US sanctions against a Bangladeshi law-enforcement agency, the Rapid Action Battalion, which has been accused of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses.
The government, using state machinery, responded to the rallies with repression, arresting two top BNP leaders, Mirza Abbas and Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and keeping them incarcerated for a month. Further, the Awami League has organised counter rallies and, on the policy front, introduced “Smart Bangladesh” – replacing the previous “Digital Bangladesh” policy – promising to implement 40 mega-projects across multiple sectors by 2041.
The arrests have not deterred the BNP and the party has continued to hold political gatherings throughout the last two months. The BNP has struck a chord with the working and lower-middle classes, who are fed up with price hikes and a lack of economic opportunities. The party also presented a 27-point proposal for structural state reforms to the people, also targeting civil society.
The BNP has promised to repeal the controversial Digital Security Act, which the Awami League government has used to jail numerous opposition politicians as well as dissident writers, journalists, artists and leaders of religious minorities.
While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced that the next general election will be held in January 2024, all signs indicate that the BNP will not sign up to participate under current circumstances, and instead will try to mount a broad-based movement to unseat the ruling party. That movement will aim to install an election-time caretaker government, which the BNP sees as a precondition for a fair vote. The task before the BNP is tough but not impossible. The way the party is progressing at this moment shows that a strong anti-government movement in 2023 is possible.
The BNP on the back foot
The BNP was formed in 1978 by the military dictator Ziaur Rahman and, following his death, has been chaired by his wife, Khaleda Zia. Khaleda led the party throughout Bangladesh’s movement for democracy and won the first election after the parliamentary system returned to Bangladesh in 1991. She lost the election in 1996, but won again in 2001 and ruled until 2006. This period was especially controversial, with allegations of corruption and the appointment to high government positions of alleged war criminals like Motiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed. After two years under a military-backed caretaker government, elections took place in 2008, and the Awami League won by a landslide. Since then, the BNP has been on the back foot. After coming into power, the Awami League started pushing trials for war crimes dating back to the 1971 war of liberation, and also for corruption involving BNP leaders and their alliance partners, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The government, using state machinery, responded to the rallies with repression, arresting two top BNP leaders.
In 2011, the Awami League government abolished the system of caretaker governments for conducting elections and, in 2014, arranged an election under its own management, which the BNP boycotted as it thought there could be no fair election under the Awami League. Without the BNP in the fray, the Awami League won another supermajority, and 153 MPs from the party were elected unopposed. In 2018, the BNP joined the election even though it was arranged under the auspices of the Awami League. The voting was marred by irregularities and allegations of ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging. The BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Since then, the party has struggled in Bangladeshi politics and has been fighting to reinstate the caretaker-government system.
A long and hard battle ahead
The BNP seems to be approaching the next election with a two-pronged plan. The first prong is a strong street movement that will, it hopes, force a collision with the ruling party and its affiliates, including the police. An example of this came on 7 December, 2022, when clashes between BNP men and the police left one person dead. The party has so far also held rallies in 10 divisional cities, and the central rally in Dhaka. So, the first part of the plan is already underway.
Many in civil society believe that the rule of Tarique Rahman would be no better than the rule of Hasina.
The second prong – to win over civil society through a 27-point reform programme – may prove to be more difficult. The BNP’s 27 points are quite promising on paper, although questions remain about how honest the party would be about implementing them if it ever returned to power. The proposals include the introduction of an upper house of Parliament, ensuring a balance of power between the prime minister and the president, and barring any person from more than two consecutive terms as prime minister. Perhaps more importantly, the party has promised to repeal the controversial Digital Security Act, which the Awami League government has used to jail numerous opposition politicians as well as dissident writers, journalists, artists and leaders of religious minorities. The question now is also whether these proposals will garner wide public support, as many of the promises may be too esoteric to move the general populace.
One of the main challenges for the BNP is the prevailing image of its main leader and acting chairman, Tarique Rahman. The son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique is currently in exile in London and has been convicted in numerous cases which the BNP says are politically motivated. Khaleda herself is living in Dhaka under a suspended jail sentence. The media establishment in Bangladesh and the ruling party have portrayed Rahman as corrupt, and in November 2022 the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of graft. Though there is strong anti-incumbency sentiment, it is difficult to gauge if the public would want Rahman in power. Many in civil society believe that the rule of Rahman would be no better than the rule of Hasina.
Even if the people nominally accept Rahman as their leader, the BNP has to fight a long and hard battle to ensure he can return to the country and remain free. Under present circumstances, the government would arrest him once he lands. Only a mass uprising can set the stage for his return. On every front, the BNP’s position as a viable alternative to the ruling Awami League hinges on it building a strong and sustained popular movement.
The ruling party is ready to face the BNP in any way necessary, be it in battle to control the streets or the popular narrative.
The BNP must have learnt some lessons from the experiences of the 2014 and 2018 elections. In 2014, the party boycotted the election and the Awami League won 153 seats uncontested. In 2018, it participated in the election and lost badly after massive irregularities. If the BNP repeats what it did in 2018, it risks the same thing happening again. And now, as then, the Awami League’s power would have greater legitimacy as it would be able to say that the opposition was given a chance. This logic again indicates that the BNP will not participate in the upcoming election unless the Awami League cedes power to a caretaker government. The major battles of Bangladesh’s politics over the course of this year will have to play out on the streets in the form of a mass movement and likely counter-movement.
The Awami League’s strong response to the BNP’s rallies with counter-rallies of its own and a crackdown on BNP activists has shown its organisational strength. The ruling party is ready to face the BNP in any way necessary, be it in battle to control the streets or the popular narrative. The government is also unveiling various development projects, such as major bridges and the Dhaka Metro Rail, to sway public opinion in its favour. But the reality is that the price of daily commodities has skyrocketed, workers’ wages remain abysmally low and economic opportunities for the youth remain inadequate. If the BNP can capitalise on these issues and attract people to its project of a broad alliance with other opposition parties from varying ideologies, it has a strong chance of re-emerging as a strong opposition to the ruling Awami League.