In September, I spent many days trying to get in touch with Ashraful Alom. I knew that Alom, an internet star better known by the moniker Hero Alom, had been making moves to get a foothold in Bangladesh’s national politics. Earlier this year, as an independent candidate, he contested the by-polls for the Bogura parliamentary seat, only to lose by a slim margin. He made another attempt in July in the Dhaka-17 by-election. This election saw abysmal voter turnout, officially recorded at 11.5 percent, possibly because of the absence of the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Alom stood second after Mohammad A Arafat, the candidate of the ruling Awami League. Anticipating that Alom would want to play a role in upcoming general elections, I wanted to interview him about his near-term plans and long-term ambitions.
Alom is an odd figure in Bangladesh’s politics. He rose to fame by producing flamboyant, loud, often cringeworthy and sometimes offensive music videos that made him both an online sensation and an object of ridicule. After the Dhaka-17 by-election, however, he seemed to emerge as a champion of democracy in Bangladesh. During the voting, Alom was attacked by a mob allegedly made up of supporters of the Awami League outside a polling booth. The incident exemplified the kind of violence that mars elections in Bangladesh. An editorial in The Daily Star said “the attack also reveals that Hero Alom was being seen as the lone challenger who really had a chance of beating the AL candidate, regardless of his social standing, educational background, and lack of a party’s backing.” The attack drew significant national attention and a number of Western missions to Bangladesh condemned it – including those of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
When I reached out to Alom, he said he was busy and claimed threats were being made to his life but still agreed to the interview. At almost the appointed hour, he postponed our meeting by a day saying that he was going out of Dhaka on some urgent business. The next day, newspapers ran headlines announcing that Alom had joined the Muktijoddha Projonmo League as its cultural secretary. Alom claimed that the Muktijoddha Projonmo League was an organisation and not a political party, that it was not linked to the Awami League, and also that he would not contest elections as an independent candidate in the future, but only on a party ticket. Despite Alom’s claims, the Muktijoddha Projonmo League is seen to be linked to the Awami League, often acting against its main rival, the BNP. Leading newspapers like The Daily Star describe the Muktijoddha Projonmo League as a pro-Awami League group.
Alom’s switch is suggestive of the ways in which the Awami League deals with potential challengers. Among the many theories of why Alom joined the Muktijoddha Projonmo League is one that says he could have been protecting himself after receiving death threats and that being linked to the Awami League was better for his political prospects.
Nazmul Ahsan, a Bangladeshi journalist at Bloomberg, sees both reasons combined as having a “push and pull effect” in Alom’s sudden choice. Zahed Ur Rahman, a member of the opposition party Nagorik Oikko and a teacher of media studies and journalism at the Independent University, Bangladesh, was more cynical about Alom’s intentions. “He just wants to be an MP in any way possible,” he said. A sudden shift in political paths, like the one Alom made, also leads to speculation that some sort of illegal or unethical deal has been struck.
What is increasingly clear is that with general elections two months away, the ruling Awami League holds significant sway over the political field and is wielding considerable power over potential challengers.
The Awami League is determined to hold the election under its own administration with the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, at its helm, while the BNP, which is the main opposition force, says that no election under the ruling party can be credible.
Elections in Bangladesh are set to be held in the first week of January. However, the country’s two major parties are yet to come to an agreement about a neutral poll-time caretaker government. The Awami League is determined to hold the election under its own administration with the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, at its helm, while the BNP, which is the main opposition force, says that no election under the ruling party can be credible. The opposition fears another “managed” election, like those in 2014 and 2018. The Awami League pushed the election through in 2014, winning 153 seats in parliament without contest as the opposition boycotted the vote, becoming the ruling party again by default. In 2018, the BNP took part in polls as part of a broad coalition with liberal parties even though the election was held under the Awami League government’s management. What resulted was a controversial election with widespread reports of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing, and with the Awami League winning all but a handful of seats.
The Awami League is evidently planning to flatten the political landscape and consolidate its grip on power indefinitely. For the upcoming vote, the election commission has allowed a number of small parties with little to no popular support to register as possible participants. These parties are suspected to be “king’s parties”, according to the daily Prothom Alo. Many of them have names similar to the BNP – for instance, the Bangladesh National Front, Bangladesh National Movement, Bangladesh Supreme Party and Trinamool Bangladesh Nationalist Party – and are led by former leaders and activists from the BNP. They give the appearance of being in opposition to the ruling party but are possibly working in sync with the Awami League. Other “king’s parties” have the word “league” in their names to insinuate a link to the Awami League. Citing unnamed sources within the Awami League, Prothom Alo reported that the party is propping up these smaller parties to absorb the BNP defectors and other challengers. It also said that the Awami League was discussing seat-sharing and other measures of support to these smaller parties on the pretext of wider participation and more voter turnout.
The Awami League is also taking other measures to ensure its victory. It has been steadfast in its opposition to having a neutral caretaker government agreed on by the major parties to run the election. The formation of caretaker governments for elections has been the norm in Bangladesh since the restoration of electoral democracy in 1990. Experts say that, historically, no election in Bangladesh has been fair under a partisan government, and a caretaker government is essential for holding a fair election.
Historically, no election in Bangladesh has been fair under a partisan government, and a caretaker government is essential for holding a fair election.
In 2006, a military-backed caretaker government took power and jailed many major politicians under corruption charges, causing political upheaval. This government was forced to host an election in 2009 under mounting pressure from citizens. When the Awami League came to power after winning that election, it abolished the caretaker government system, going against judicial advice that the two following elections should be held under caretaker governments. Since then, no credible election has taken place in the country.
Since 2011, the BNP has continuously demanded the restoration of caretaker governments – something the party itself was reluctant to concede to while it was in power in 1996. Near the end of this October, the BNP took out a massive protest calling for Hasina to resign and alleging that she cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections. The government cracked down on the protesters, arresting hundreds including the BNP secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
While in opposition, both the BNP and the Awami League have resorted to violent tactics and strikes to demand caretaker governments. Now, the BNP almost daily reiterates its commitment to boycotting any election without a caretaker government in place. Its position has garnered support as many Bangladeshis are now joining the opposition party’s rallies in droves. Outlining an Awami League strategy that the party seems to be recycling from 2014, Salman F Rahman, an advisor to the prime minister, has said that the election will take place even if the BNP does not participate. In mid-October, the law minister, Anisul Huq, said that Hasina would soon determine the size of her election-time government.
The BNP almost daily reiterates its commitment to boycotting any election without a caretaker government in place. Its position has garnered support as many Bangladeshis are now joining the opposition party’s rallies in droves.
Foreign governments, including those of the United States and the European Union, are also paying attention to the claims that no credible election is possible under the present regime. Perhaps as a warning, the US government has declared that anyone who obstructs the process of a democratic election in Bangladesh will be denied entry to the United States. The EU recently stated that it will not send election observers to Bangladesh, citing a lack of “necessary conditions”. However, the ruling party seems unfazed. Party leaders have openly stated that they do not care about the pressure from the West. They might instead be finding encouragement in ties with countries like China and Russia, which are aligned against the West. The role of India will also be crucial, and both the Awami League and the BNP are likely trying to court Indian power in their favour.
Another worry is that the Awami League and its affiliates may try to make the election seem credible by bringing in non-neutral election observers and having them testify that the elections were free and fair. Bangladesh’s election commission – appointed by the government and, according to the BNP, rife with people connected to the ruling party – has published a list of 68 election observers, many of whom have no public credibility or strong links with the Awami League. These attempts at faking legitimacy, instead of building trust by agreeing to a poll-time caretaker government, show that the ruling party has no real interest in coming to a political arrangement for a free and fair election with the participation of all major parties.
Politics in Bangladesh is heading towards hostilities as the major parties are at loggerheads. The Awami League government has, over the years, filed hundreds of cases against top BNP leaders. Khaleda Zia, the BNP’s chairperson and a former prime minister, is under house arrest on corruption charges. She is reportedly suffering from ill health and people close to her say that her life is in danger if she is not permitted to seek better medical treatment outside Bangladesh. The government is unwilling to grant her permission to travel abroad. Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, who is the BNP’s acting chairperson, is in exile in London as he faces a jail term back home. Under these acrimonious circumstances, there is little to no possibility of a negotiated outcome that meets the demands of both parties. And whatever dreams Hero Alom may have had of offering Bangladeshis an alternative option may never be realised.