Bangladesh ruling party’s new election calculus

Ruling party's action towards the opposition Dhaka rally indicates free and fair elections are off the table.

Bangladesh ruling party’s new election calculus
Police outside the office of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party on December 8th 2022, the day after they raided it claiming to have found explosives, an allegation vehemently denied by the party. (Photo: Netra News) 

In Bangladesh, all eyes are on December 10th. A year ago, this was the day that the United States imposed financial and other sanctions on key police and army officials for their role in leading the law enforcement unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is alleged to have committed hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Now, a year on — while some think there is a slight possibility that the US could follow up with additional sanctions — the day is of interest for being the date when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is due to hold a large rally in the country’s capital city.

This planned assembly comes off the back of a successful run of mass meetings in different parts of the country with each one attracting thousands (if not tens of thousands) of BNP supporters despite some desperate attempts by the government to minimise attendance, which included transport strikes, filing of criminal cases against BNP local leaders, and violent attacks by ruling party activists.

In recent years, many commentators had predicted the slow death of the BNP, suggesting that it was no longer a sufficiently significant political force in the country to take on the increasingly authoritarian ruling Awami League. They pointed to the party’s poor record when it was last in government, the proven corruption of its senior leadership at that time, its poor organisation, and most significantly the huge repression conducted by the current government as it lodged false criminal cases against hundreds of thousands of its supporters and jailed thousands of them.

However, if the success of its recent district level meetings are anything to go by, Houdini-like, the party seems to have re-established itself as a potent force. And according to BNP insiders, it is Tarique Rahman, the party’s exiled leader in London whose very corruption helped sully the whole party’s image when it was last in power, who should be given the most credit for the significantly improved organisation of the party.

Sitting in London, and speaking regularly with local members and leaders of the party throughout the country, Rahman has managed to galvanise the grassroots of the party. “This is now Tareq Rahman’s party,” one senior journalist said.

Among those looking intently at the December 10th rally —  and its implications for the country’s next national elections — has been the international community who in recent days have published two particularly pointed, and no doubt coordinated, statements.

In the first statement, issued on December 6th, 15 foreign missions jointly highlighted “the fundamental role” of “democracy”, “the importance of … free expression, peaceful assembly, and elections” and the need for “free, fair, inclusive, and peaceful electoral processes …” In a separate statement, released the following day, the current head of the UN in Bangladesh, reminded Bangladesh of its commitments “to free expression, media freedom, and peaceful assembly…”

These statements obviously had the December 10th rally in mind, hoping that the Bangladesh government would appreciate it was in its own interests to allow it to proceed peacefully.

This however does not seem to have ever been the government’s plan. Although the police gave the BNP permission to hold a rally in Dhaka, it had imposed a series of restrictive conditions that included a requirement to install high-resolution CCTV cameras at the rally ground and not give any “provocative” speeches. As the rally neared, police started arresting hundreds of opposition activists.

And then a day after the diplomatic statements were issued, on December 7th, the police attacked BNP supporters gathered outside its party office in Dhaka, and shot and killed one activist who was standing inside the building preventing him from accessing medical assistance. Law enforcement officers also raided the building itself, subsequently claiming to have found “bombs”.

A cynic — and most commentators who seek to report honestly on law enforcement in Bangladesh must be that — would argue that the police have simply fabricated a pretext to stop the rally. Shortly after the bombs were "discovered", the state minister for foreign affairs, Shahriar Alam, posted a video on his Twitter feed that argued that, “BNP had no intention of peaceful assembly on 10 December, but rather planned on violence as a means of intimidating the government.” This the same minister who had claimed the previous day that holding the rally was, in effect, seditious. "The BNP is conspiring against the country by calling for a rally in Dhaka on International Human Rights Day," he said,

Newspapers are now reporting that the rally is in doubt “as many senior leaders are either in detention … or in hiding” - and if so the government may well have got what it wants. However, in the process the Awami League leadership are certainly putting two fingers up to the international community who most definitely want the opposition to be given an opportunity to hold its meeting in the capital city.

After the sanctions imposed last year, the Bangladesh government seemed to acknowledge that some changes to its repressive activities were necessary, and the number of extrajudicial killings and disappearances did significantly decline. Some thought that the fear of further sanctions could also impact upon the government’s calculus of whether it would allow free and fair elections. As reported in a previous column, a few senior members of the government “understand there can be no repeat of the 2018 election rigging and they will need to make changes.”

However, this wing of Awami League’s leadership is certainly not in the ascendent at the moment, and perhaps realpolitik explains why.

First, while the sanctions were initially a shock, they seem to have had no significant impact on the politics of the country.

Secondly, it is notable that the US was the only country that imposed sanctions, belying any sense of international consensus.

Thirdly, while it is possible that the US does impose additional sanctions on Bangladeshi politicians and others if they do not allow free and fair elections (see Nicaragua as an example), it is reasonable to guess that other countries will not follow them, and so the negative impact will be manageable — particularly since the government will probably continue to have the support of Russia, China and India.

Those now making decisions within the Awami League must be thinking that although rigging the election may well have some negative consequences, they are far outweighed by the benefit (the certainty of remaining in power) will bring

Until the Bangladeshi people or the international community find a way of changing this calculus — so that winning a rigged election has worse consequences than losing a free and fair election —  it is right now difficult to see how the current trajectory of the Awami League government will change over the next year.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News. He also runs the bangladeshpolitico blog