The chances of peaceful polls in Bangladesh are receding with each passing day of Opposition-sponsored violent street protests that have triggered harsh government crackdowns.
Arson and violence on the streets of capital Dhaka and other cities and towns across the country are intensifying with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other Opposition parties determined to force the Awami League (AL) government to step down.
The Opposition has been demanding that the parliamentary elections — slated for early January 2024 — be held under a neutral caretaker government as was the practice earlier.
But the AL government has rejected the demand outright, arguing that a caretaker government is not necessary. The Sheikh Hasina government has cited the bad experience of the last caretaker government that continued to rule the country illegally with the army’s backing for over 28 months from late October 2006 to early January 2009.
The BNP had been organising peaceful rallies and marches across the country over the past year. But a mega rally called by the principal Opposition party on 28 October turned violent with BNP activists attacking AL workers, triggering police retaliation.
The clashes between BNP activists and police soon spiralled out of control and led to widespread violence and arson that left three people, including a policeman, dead and scores injured.
A harsh crackdown on BNP leaders and activists followed. Almost the entire top leadership of the BNP, as well as thousands of BNP workers, are now in prison facing charges of murder, arson, attacks on police, possession of weapons, etc.
The police crackdown has driven the remaining BNP leaders, and tens of thousands of workers and activists, into hiding. But a leaderless BNP has not shied away from intensifying the street protests.
BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia has been in prison on graft charges for the past few years while her son Tarique Rahman is in exile in London. Most of the other top leaders, including its three vice chairmen and its secretary general have been arrested since 28 October.
Senior police officer Mohammad Anwar Hossain, who is the DIG (Operations) at the police headquarters, said that between 1,600 to 1,700 BNP members (leaders and workers) have been arrested every day over the last nine days.
BNP chairperson’s aide Shamsuddin Didar told Swarajya that over 6,000 party leaders and functionaries have been arrested since 28 October.
The police are now compiling lists of BNP workers and even supporters at the grassroots level and will start arresting them from Monday (6 November).
Though the BNP’s two-day road-rail-waterways blockade — the second such blockade called by the party over the last nine days — ended today (Monday), the party is expected to announce an intensification of its agitation soon.
That will, inevitably, lead to more clashes. DIG (Operations) Hossain told Swarajya over phone from Dhaka that BNP activists are getting increasingly brazen and attacking police with crude bombs.
To add to the already volatile situation, the AL is now deploying its cadres on the streets to foil Opposition protests.
AL presidium member Mohammad Abdur Razzak, who is also an MP, told Swarajya that his party has asked its workers to be present on the streets to resist violence by activists of the BNP and other Opposition parties.
“Violence will be thwarted at all costs,” said Razzak. AL workers, armed with lathis and hockey sticks, have been seen patrolling the streets of Dhaka and other cities and towns in the country.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal has asked people of the country to resist violence by BNP and Opposition activists.
Addressing transport sector workers on Sunday (5 November), he said they should be vigilant and teach BNP workers who attempt to torch their vehicles a stern lesson.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had also said that “the hands of those who torch vehicles should be burnt”. She has been terming the BNP a “party of terrorists and arsonists”, thus exacerbating the already charged political atmosphere.
It is thus very clear that there will be no let-up in violence over the next few weeks as a desperate BNP intensifies its protests. The fear is that with almost all its leadership behind bars, rudderless BNP workers will be impossible to control and will carry out more desperate acts of violence.
Cloud Over Parliamentary Polls
The BNP has already declared that it will not participate in the elections to the 12th Jatiya Sansad (the country’s Parliament) if they are not held under a neutral caretaker government.
“We have no faith in the Awami League government and elections will never be free and fair if they are held under the present government. That is why we are insistent on elections being held under the supervision of a neutral caretaker government. The AL rigged the 2014 and 2018 elections, and so we have no confidence in the neutrality of the government and the Election Commission functions as a handmaiden of the ruling party. Since there is no point in participating in a rigged election, we will boycott the elections if they are not held under a neutral caretaker government,” BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir had told Swarajya a day before the 28 October rally of his party.
The Election Commission had called an all-party meeting last Saturday (4 November) to discuss poll arrangements. The meeting was boycotted by the BNP and 16 other registered political parties.
Alamgir, who was arrested for his alleged involvement in the violence and arson on 28 October, said that the BNP has planned to intensify street protests “because that is the only way to force the government to step down”. He had, however, emphasised that the protests would remain peaceful.
But the protests turned violent, and that gave an opportunity to the ruling party and the state machinery to crack down on the BNP.
It is now clear that the BNP and other Opposition parties will boycott the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
But the AL is not very concerned.
“No one is stopping the BNP or its allies from participating in the elections. Their leaders have been arrested for their involvement in murders, attacks on people and properties and arson. They will stand trial and will be freed if they are found to be innocent. But the election process will continue as scheduled,” AL secretary general Obaidul Quader told Swarajya.
Kamrul Islam, another AL presidium member and Jatiya Sansad member, told Swarajya that the ruling party and the government are determined to foil the violence unleashed by the BNP, some other Opposition parties and the Islamist organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami.
“Their objective is to derail the poll process through largescale violence, blockades and disruptions. But this plan will be defeated,” said Islam.
The Dangers Of A Poll Boycott
A boycott of the parliamentary elections by the principal Opposition party (the BNP) and other smaller parties like the communist and socialist parties will rob the elections of their morality and legitimacy.
The 2014 elections (held in early January that year) were boycotted by the BNP and many other Opposition parties because they were not held under a neutral caretaker government.
The 2014 elections were preceded by a massive crackdown on the BNP and jailing of the entire BNP leadership and retaliatory violence by BNP cadres. The AL won more than half the 300 Jatiya Sansad seats uncontested.
The US, UK, UN and the European Union strongly criticised the elections and said the polls “lacked legitimacy”.
The December 2018 elections were also marred by widespread violence and harsh action against the BNP and other Opposition parties. Nearly 50 people, mostly activists and supporters of the BNP and other Opposition parties, were killed in political clashes and in police firing.
Thousands of BNP leaders and workers were arrested and Opposition parties were allegedly prevented from campaigning. The media, especially the Western media, reported widespread rigging.
The AL swept the elections which were heavily criticised by many Western countries.
This time, the US, UK and European Union have urged the Sheikh Hasina government to ensure that the elections are free, fair and inclusive (a euphemism for ensuring the participation of the BNP and other Opposition parties).
The US has also warned of imposing visa restrictions on individuals who it deems had obstructed the conduct of free and fair polls.
Emboldened by this stance of the US and the other Western nations’ insistence of inclusive, free and fair polls, the BNP has been demanding that Sheikh Hasina steps down to make way for the formation of a neutral caretaker government that will conduct free and fair elections.
The BNP reckons that Hasina’s rejection of this demand that has led to its (BNP’s) declaration of poll boycott will invite intervention by the US and other Western nations, including the EU.
BNP vice president Shahjahan Omar who was arrested last weekend had said before his arrest that the BNP hoped that the US, UK and EU will lean heavily on Sheikh Hasina to step down.
“If elections are held in a free and fair manner under a neutral caretaker regime, we will sweep the elections and form the next government,” Omar had asserted.
But the BNP’s plans are not likely to bear fruit because Sheikh Hasina has indicated she will resist all pressure and attempted interventions by the US, UK and EU and will not step down.
That only means that the next nine weeks leading to the elections (expected to be held between 6 and 9 January, 2024) will be marked by widespread violence, and a brutal crackdown on the BNP and other Opposition parties by the AL government.
And with the BNP and other Opposition parties boycotting the elections, the AL will sweep to power early next year.
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