As our neighbour Bangladesh goes to general elections in January 2024, the ruling party (Awami League) prepares itself to seek a mandate from nearly 120 million Bangla voters for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s fourth consecutive term in office. The main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) today faces a difficult situation as its uncontested leader Begum Khaleda Zia (77) continues to be unwell and its acting chairperson Tarique Rahman has been exiled in London since 2008. But a recent demonstration by thousands of BNP supporters in Dhaka demanding the resignation of PM Hasina for a free & fair election drew the attention of international media.
BNP leaders are sticking to their demand for a neutral caretaker administration in Dhaka to conduct the forthcoming elections, as they publicly allege that the ruling AL and its allies will rig the polls. The opposition alliance, led by the BNP, believes that the ruling alliance will lose the elections if held in a free & fair manner. So they are yet to agree to participate in polls unless PM Hasina (75) endorses a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the electoral process. Otherwise, they may boycott the polls, as they did in the 2014 and 2018 national elections. But the world’s longest-serving female government head refused to step down prior to the elections citing that it’s not mandatory under the Constitution of Bangladesh.
No doubt, the BNP and its allies particularly Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups will not sit ideally in favour of the incumbent PM. They will go for more street protests across the country in the coming days and many demonstrators may adopt violent means for national and international media attention. Even the turmoil can continue in the post-poll scenario if the opposition alliance does not participate in the elections. The intense and uninterrupted political chaos may also invite the ‘men in uniform’ to step into the political space and finally, another dictator can emerge in Dhaka, as Bangladesh has a history of military interventions in politics.
The ruling AL alliance won over 250 Parliamentary seats in the December 2018 elections and thus enjoys an absolute majority in the 350-member Jatiya Sangsad, the highest legislative body of Bangladesh, which does not have provincial legislative assemblies like India or Pakistan. The daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-who is respected as Bangla’s Father of the Nation- still enjoys a reputation as an influential leader and lately gained more political mileage after the special invitation from New Delhi to attend the G20 summit. PM Hasina was the only South Asian government head to be invited to attend and she also enjoyed a bilateral discussion with her host counterpart Narendra Modi.
Over the years, the USA along with many Western nations have repeatedly urged Hasina to hold the elections in a transparent way where all opposition parties can participate and the electors can vote freely. Days back, the USA and UK diplomats met the Bangladesh chief election commissioner and other officials to enquire about the poll preparations. European Union leaders are planning to send election observers to Bangladesh, which is welcomed by the AL government arguing that its Election Commission is capable enough to run the exercise honestly and independently.
Weeks back, an open letter issued by a group of global personalities including Nobel laureates, urged Hasina to suspend all legal proceedings against Professor Muhammad Yunus (83), the one and only Nobel laureate of Bangladesh. It was preceded by another letter to Hasina regarding her government’s ill-treatment of Prof Yunus. The letter, endorsed by 40 global personalities, was published as an advertisement in the Washington Post. Even 34 eminent Bangladeshi nationals came forward raising their voices for Prof Yunus and opined that the incumbent government was inviting negative comments from the international community.
Reacting to the allegations, Hasina hit back with suggestions that they should send international election experts to observe the Bangla polls. But who is not aware of chaos and violence erupted in the time of general elections there? Is it following the public perception that Hasina may lose the battle of ballots this time?