Two visuals dominate the cityscapes of Dhaka in central Bangladesh, Jashore (Jessore) in the southwest, and Khulna in the south: posters of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the country born of genocide and schism in 1971, and of his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the ruling Awami League (AL).
Posters of leaders from the opposition are rare. Rarer still is opposition graffiti. Even in the vast Khulna Division, one of the eight in Bangladesh and a stronghold of the right-leaning Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), it is almost impossible to see a poster or banner of the party or its leader, Begum Khaleda Zia.
The BNP, while being the second-largest political party in Bangladesh, remains unrepresented in the 350-seat parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, after the 18 Party Alliance that it leads boycotted the 2014 general election.
Khaleda Zia, a two-time prime minister, was jailed for five years on February 8, 2018 for embezzling more than $250,000 from a charity named after her husband, former President Ziaur Rahman.
Since Bangladesh’s constitution expressly prohibits a person sentenced to more than two years from participating in elections, the verdict against Zia, who is 72 years old and reportedly ailing in jail, effectively bars her from running in this year’s election.
In effect, the major opposition has been taken out of the reckoning even as Bangladesh gears up for a general election to be held anytime between October and December this year.
It is an unequal electoral war. In the January 2014 general election, held in intensely combative political circumstances, more than half the total seats (153) were won uncontested. The Awami League won 87 of the uncontested seats (59 percent), and 105 of the 147 contested seats (almost 69 percent).
Hasina had placed Zia under house arrest then, too, in December 2013, less than a week before the general election. This had effectively stopped Zia from campaigning.
The only party in the opposition that seems to have survived the sweeping gutting is the official opposition party, the right conservative Jatiya Party (Ershad), which won 34 seats in 2014 and today has 41 seats in parliament. (Parties gain extra seats in the Bangladeshi parliament through their allotment from the 50 reserved seats for women, which is calculated according to their proportional representation in the House.)
The JP(E) was formed by Hussain Mohammad Ershad, who had elevated himself to the post of the 10th president of Bangladesh through a “bloodless coup” almost three decades ago. A longstanding advocate of Islam as the state religion, he was vindicated this March when the High Court rejected a 30-year-old public interest litigation filed for the removal of a constitutional provision recognizing Islam as the official religion in 1977.
Ershad stands out for having allied himself variously and severally with the Awami League and the BNP. His three-year-long presidential run was, however, brought to an end in 1990 by combined opposition from Hasina and Zia.
The Awami League and the BNP’s quest to unseat Ershad had been actively supported by a comprehensive leftist platform, including the Communist Party of Bangladesh, the Workers Party of Bangladesh, and the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Jasad).
But since then, the small (but surprisingly resilient) leftist parties have been pushed to the background. Of them, only a few have representation in the parliament, including the Workers Party with seven seats and Jasad with six seats.
It has been a long slide from the pro-independence protest movement of 1968-69, when mass rallies were held with demonstrators calling for “rule by peasants and workers.”
The left movement in Bangladesh never quite recovered from China’s moral and financial support to Pakistan even as it went on a genocidal spree. On April 12, 1971, the Pakistani press published a message from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that upheld the government’s “useful work” and declaring that “what is happening in Pakistan at present is purely an internal affair of Pakistan.” Then China handed the then -Yahya Khan regime an interest-free loan of $100 million.
At the university level, however, the left remains strong. This muscularity might show itself in the next general election. Certainly, it was much in evidence during the massive student uprisings in April this year to protest job quotas that the students saw as weighted against them. Bangladesh’s university sculptures — including nationally popular ones at Dhaka, Khulna, and Mymensingh universities — are overwhelmingly inspired by Soviet Socialist art.
The left in Bangladesh — seriously resource- and fund-starved as it is — could seek to revive itself, and democracy, through judicious alliances with the big two, the BNP and the AL. But it has its own doctrinairism to contend with first. Although the Communist Party of Bangladesh looks favorably upon the BNP, it is disinclined to join the 18 Party Alliance because of the Jamaat-e-Islami (which, despite having been deregistered in August 2013, remains a potent force).
Says Ariful Islam Sazib, leader of the leftist Bangladesh Students’ Union in Bagerhat district in the Khulna Division, “The BNP is openly backed by the Islamist fundamentalists. The Awami League has tacit ties [with the Islamists].”
Despite its modernist character, the Awami League has not been consistently secular. While it restored the principle of secularism enshrined in the original 1972 constitution, it retained the wording added in 1997 to the opening to the preamble: “bismillah-ar-rahman-ar rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”). In fact, Hasina has adopted the position that while she does not favor Sharia law, there must be “stern action” against anyone “defaming Islam.” This is a demand of the Islamic parties, and it has riven the country in half.
Professor Anu Muhammad of the Department of Economics at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka says, “The lines are blurred now. This AL government has done many things to harm the secular fabric.” As examples, he cites the AL “surrendering to Hefajat and revising textbooks, protecting criminals who were identified for grabbing the land of the minorities, and allocating huge amount of money to please them.”
Four years after the BNP chose to disenfranchise itself, Hasina has backed the BNP into a corner again. Zia’s inability to campaign might cost the BNP considerable ground support. But if the BNP boycott the polls yet again, it would be constitutionally deregistered as a political party.
While the Jatiya Party (Ershad) cobbled together a 58-member United National Alliance in May 2017, they are all Islamic parties, only two of which are registered and can run for election.
All this could pave the pave the way for the Awami League to notch up a massive “uncontested” victory — just as in 2014.
This might — as in neighboring India — lead to what could effectively be one-party rule. Given that Sheikh Hasina draws not inconsiderable support from Islamist parties — whose “Islam first” line she has been toeing in order to break the longstanding BNP-Islamist nexus — this could mean more trouble than the country’s besieged democracy needs or can handle.
Amit Sengupta writes for StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from Asia.