Amidst political turmoil and deadlock of the past decade, the people of Bangladesh will elect their representatives for the Jatiya Sansad on December 30, 2018. This will be the 11th parliamentary election for a total of 350 seats. Despite the uncertainty over the fixing of a date for the election, the election commission selected December 30 from the earlier December 23, after the opposition parties accused the ruling Awami League of coercing the political process and giving the minimum time to the political parties to prepare for the elections.
The last parliamentary elections were held in 2014 which saw an unprecedented political gamble by the leading opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) which boycotted the elections. As a result of this boycott, 50 percent of the seats remained uncontested, leaving them to the Awami League which eventually formed the government.
The present battle for the parliament has taken a different course from the traditional ones as the opposition leader and chairman of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, is serving a jail term after she was found guilty in two corruption cases. As per the electoral provisions, a person serving a jail term of two or more years is barred from contesting elections. Also, Jamat-e-Islami (JI), a fundamentalist Islamic political party and an ardent ally of the BNP, has been barred from contesting the elections. As the largest Islamic political party, JI was declared unconstitutional, and its registration was revoked in 2013. With its roots in Pakistan, JI had fought against the Liberation Army and had opposed Bangladesh’s breakaway from Pakistan in 1971. Meanwhile, the BNP has nominated 24 Jamatis as its candidates for the upcoming elections. Hence, a two-front weakness persists with the opposition even before the elections take place.
With Khaleda Zia in jail, it was a long-held political exercise for the BNP to come up with a united face for the Opposition. It was quickly resolved after Dr Kamal Hossain, a legal luminary, a veteran politician, and academic joined hands with the BNP with his four-party Jatiyo Oikyo Front (JOF). Hossain, a close associate of the founder of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, served as the first law minister of an independent Bangladesh in 1972, later becoming the Foreign Minister of the country. Following the killing of Rahman in 1975, he continued to serve the Awami League in various capacities until his fallout with Sheikh Hasina in 1988.
Representing a secular face, Dr Hossian remained critical of the BNP in the past for its role in the 1971 Liberation War for siding with Pakistan and its atrocities on the people of erstwhile East Pakistan. However, by joining the hands with the BNP, Dr Hossian has put the Awami League in a fix as his departure from his past ideological support to Awami League shifts his secular outlook to a nationalist and fundamentalist one given his alliance with BNP-JI front. To the surprise of many, Dr Hossian went on to change the logo of the JOF from the rising sun to sheaf of paddy which is the poll symbol of the BNP-JI alliance.
Post-2014, under Sheikh Hasina’s second term as the Prime Minister, Bangladesh has witnessed surprising economic indicators under her leadership. Currently, the manufacturing sector, especially the fast-growing garment sector, stands second to China in the global garment manufacturing industry. Also, having managed to sustain its GDP above 6 percent average growth in last one decade followed by in the first half of the current fiscal year, Hasina’s government’s economic performance has surprisingly done well. While economic indicators speak on their own, the upcoming elections put a multi-front challenge before Sheikh Hasina including the challenge due to the increasing number of corruption cases against the Awami League’s ministers.
The socio-cultural aspect of the Bangladeshi society has been a critical factor in the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. With an 88 percent majority Bengali Muslim population, Hindus who constitute 10 percent of the total population have always been a significant vote bank for the Awami League due to its secularist outlook. However, in the past five years, discomfort within the minority Hindus towards Sheikh Hasina has grown significantly. A spate of attacks on Hindu temples and households have led to protests by the Hindu community. In several incidents, the has alleged that attacks have been carried out to forcefully evict Hindus from their own land by creating an atmosphere of fear. To minimize the effects, the Awami League has fielded 18 Hindu candidates.
Advancements made at the socio-economic, political and foreign policy fronts shall play a decisive role in locking the political fate of the Awami League.
Of late, the assertive outlook opted by Sheikh Hasina has not gone well in her favor. In July and August 2018, Dhaka witnessed a chain of incidents. In July, thousands of the people took to the streets to protest against the government for failing to provide road safety measures. More than 20 people were killed, including those who died due to severe beatings by the security forces. Further, the Editor’s Council held its protests in August against the alleged draconian . Under the act, individuals can be sentenced to a maximum of 14 years in jail for illegally accessing and destroying information related to state affairs. Journalists accused the government of using the law to curb the freedom of expression. Since the media house contributes to building the image of the government, their unfavorable support to Sheikh Hasina may harm her race for reelection.
On the foreign policy front, Bangladesh’s ties with Beijing grew steadily under Sheikh Hasina. In 2018, in a major investment, China bought a 25 percent share in the Dhaka Stock Exchange. Bangladesh is one of one of the important actors in China’s ambitious and multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under the BRI, China is developing a 750-acre industrial park in Bangladesh with an aim to boost its overseas manufacturing. China is also developing a 6-km bridge over the Padma River which will cut short the duration of the commute by road and rail between the north and south of the country. Beijing has also more than “USD 3 billion for the development of the project as part of a wider plan to spend USD 30 billion on Bangladesh infrastructure schemes.”
Furthermore, Bangladesh is ranked second in importing Chinese military supplies. Undoubtedly, Chinese investments in Bangladesh have received a warm welcome under the Hasina administration. However, the upcoming elections pose a challenge for Beijing. If the BNP-JI front forms the new government, it is unlikely that they will differ with the present China policy of the Awami League, but the transfer of power may affect Chinese businesses and slow down future projects for a while.
For India, the Awami League has been its most friendly choice, and it will look forward to Sheikh Hasina’s reelection. During her last visit to India in 2017, Sheikh Hasina had received a cordial welcome in New Delhi, and the Indian Prime Minister had congratulated his Bangladeshi counterpart for energizing the bilateral partnership in the power sector, strengthening Indian investment in Bangladesh, and cooperating on connectivity projects on land, sea, and air. An emphasis was also made on improving defense cooperation. A sixty-two point issued during the visit was one of the well worked diplomatic efforts by the two countries. In addition, about a dozen are amounting to billion of Indian private investment in Bangladesh. A USD 7.5 billion Line of Credit has also been approved for infrastructure and other projects in . In the past, BNP-led governments had seen huge trust-deficits and falls in bilateral business. On the other hand, the Awami League would seek New Delhi’s support to woo the Hindu minority to vote for its candidates.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has been wary of the growing Chinese footprint in Bangladesh. India was one of the countries to bid to buy 25 percent of the Dhaka Stock Exchange. It was a severe blow to India’s economic engagement with Bangladesh after the latter chose China over India since China had bid three times higher than India. With hopes for brighter economic engagement, the forthcoming elections are a litmus test for India.
The United States is also closely observing the elections. The present leadership’s relationship with the United States has not gone well. After a major request by the US to build a deep sea port on one of the islands in Bangladesh was turned down by Dhaka, the US has seen it as a setback for the US presence in the Bay of Bengal to counter the growing maritime presence of China. While the BNP-JI alliance has indicated the possibility of the US building a port, the US remains hopeful of a friendly poll verdict.
In a recent setback in the US-Bangladesh relationship, the complained about the Bangladesh election commission’s “inability to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which the United States funded through the National Democratic Institute.” The election commission has approved 175 foreign observers for the forthcoming elections. While Sheikh Hasina has defended the decision of the independent Election Commission, the unhappiness of the White House is wide in the open.
To conclude, advancements made at the socio-economic, political and foreign policy fronts shall play a decisive role in locking the political fate of the Awami League. However, having failed to ensure complete fairness in the electoral process and curbing political violence in the country, the Awami League will undoubtedly face the daunting challenge of providing political stability to the country. Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, India, China and the US are unlikely to want to see Sheikh Hasina go.