The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) seems to be stirring out of its slumber. On October 8, senior BNP leader Amanullah Aman said that the party will be organizing processions and rallies across the country that would culminate in BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and her son, acting Chairman Tarique Rahman ruling the country from December 10.
“Get ready, a new program will be announced,” Aman said, elaborating that the party proposed to blockade all of “Bangladesh, including Kanchpur Bridge, Tongi Bridge, Mawa Road, Aricha Road, Teknaf to Tetulia and Rupsha to Pathuria.
“If necessary, we will be martyrs but no election under [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina will be allowed. We will return home after ensuring the removal of this government,” he said.
Since Aman’s announcement on October 8, the BNP, which is Bangladesh’s main opposition party, has been holding public rallies. Three rallies have been held peacefully so far. Although the government sought to put up obstacles in the way of people participating in the rally, such as shutting down public transport, the rallies were attended by large numbers of people. The final rally will be held in the capital Dhaka on December 10.
Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League (AL), has been in power since January 2009. Since then, the AL government has done away with the system of holding elections under a caretaker government. A caretaker government is a neutral government, one that rules the country for a period of three months to conduct general elections.
The last two general elections in Bangladesh, in 2014 and 2018, were held under the AL and were marked with election rigging, forge voting, and boycott of the election by opposition parties, including the BNP.
Marginalization of the opposition seems to be the goal of the AL government. It has not allowed opposition parties to protest and has arrested its leaders.
In recent months, the BNP seems to have rejuvenated itself and is holding large public rallies across the country. At a rally in Narayanganj on July 31 to mark the 44th anniversary of the BNP’s founding, an activist was shot dead and scores of others were injured.
So why has the BNP become active of late? The recent economic crisis in the country has provided it with a solid issue around which to mobilize people.
Economic growth and infrastructure development have been important components of the AL government’s policies. It has undertaken several mega infrastructure projects including the Padma Bridge Project, Metro Rail Project, Ruppur Power Plant Project and the Karnafuli Tunnel Project and has ensured power supply to all Bangladeshis. The AL government has managed to propel the country from a low-income country to a middle-income one. Indeed “More Development Less Democracy” is a slogan of the government, indicating the priority it accords to the country’s economic development.
However, its promises of economic growth have been unraveling in recent months. Fuel prices were hiked by 50 percent. This has in turn had a spiral effect on the prices of basic commodities. Inflation has increased by 10 percent and is adversely affecting lower and middle-income people.
Meanwhile, the value of the Bangladeshi taka has fallen against the dollar. The country’s forex reserves have depleted from $48 billion in August 2021 to just $35.95 billion in October 2022.
Bangladesh is in the grip of a crippling power crisis. While the AL government ensured electricity for all, load shedding has become a recurring feature of daily life in Bangladesh. The prime minister’s energy advisor, Dr. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, has said that an immediate solution to the ongoing load-shedding will not be possible as the government has reduced the import of fuel to save its foreign currency reserves. “We have to cut fuel import considering the future situation as part of the plan to conserve foreign currencies,” he said. The economic crisis has dealt a severe blow to the AL government’s image and credibility in the eyes of the people.
Geopolitical rivalries could also benefit the BNP.
Bangladesh is an important actor in regional and global geopolitics. While the U.S. wants Bangladesh to join the Quad, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming warned in May 2021 that “Bangladesh’s relations with China will substantially be damaged if it does so.” Moreover, China wants Bangladesh to join its nascent Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI).
With Bangladesh oscillating between warming to the U.S. or China, the U.S. mounted pressure on Dhaka by imposing sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and its seven high officials. Moreover, in the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that the U.S. released earlier this year, the U.S described the 2018 election as neither free nor fair. The AL government come under mounting pressure to hold free and fair elections that are scheduled for December 2023 from ambassadors of the U.S. E.U., Japan, and Germany in Bangladesh. Current geopolitics is pressuring the AL government to hold fair elections, which will work to benefit the BNP electoral fortunes.
Last but not the least, the BNP seems to be getting more organized and united. It has been in disarray. Chairperson Zia was jailed in 2018 on corruption charges and although she was freed in 2020 due to ill health, she does not hold political office and cannot engage in political activities on account of her corruption conviction. Her son Rahman, who is the acting chairperson of the party is a convicted fugitive and has been living in London. Rahman is now guiding his party members from abroad.
A leading Bangladeshi political analyst told The Diplomat that “the bad governance of the government has made the BNP popular, and Rahman is playing a key role in motivating his party members from abroad.”
Bangladesh’s economic crisis and geopolitics have provided the BNP with an opportunity to mobilize the masses. The AL government will be looking for an opportunity too to halt the BNP’s rejuvenation. Will it clamp down on BNP activists in the name of law and order? The BNP will need to ensure that its rallies provide the government with no excuse to shut down its mass protests.