The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)’s much-awaited rally in Dhaka on December 10 ended peacefully with the party putting forward ten demands to the Awami League government. In addition to calling for the resignation of the government and the dissolving of parliament, the BNP has demanded the setting up of a neutral election-time caretaker government.
Other demands include the withdrawal of “false cases” filed against BNP leaders and activists, including party chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, as well as the repeal of laws like the Digital Security Act 2018, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2009, and the Special Powers Act 1974.
The BNP announced at the rally that its seven parliamentarians would resign. The MPs have since emailed the resignations to the speaker of the house.
There were apprehensions that the BNP rally in the capital would turn violent. Clashes were expected to erupt between police and opposition activists. That did not happen as security at the site of the rally and across Dhaka was tight.
However, the run-up to the Dhaka rally was tense, even marked with violence.
On December 8, a BNP activist was shot dead in front of the party’s central office in Dhaka in clashes between party members and the police. A man was allegedly beaten to death by activists of the ruling Awami League (AL) when they could not find his son, a BNP activist.
A day before the Dhaka rally, the government arrested BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and BNP Standing Committee member Mirza Abbas.
With Zia forbidden from participating in active politics – she was sentenced to a five-year jail term on corruption charges and is now detained at home, while her son and acting BNP Chairman Tarique Rahaman is living overseas as a fugitive – Alamgir has been leading the BNP on the ground. His arrest is a blow to the party.
In a speech on the eve of the Dhaka event, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned the BNP of a severe response from her government. “The hand with which they [opposition] come to set people on fire will have to be burnt with the same fire,” Hasina said.
BNP Standing Committee member Dr. Khondker Mosharraf Hossain, who was the chief guest at the Dhaka rally, derided the government for clinging to power. The “Awami League has destroyed the economy, looted money from banks, and destroyed the judiciary,” Hossain said. “They will not be able to maintain law and order situation anymore.”
Drawing attention to the nine previous rallies that the BNP has held in divisional capitals across the country in recent months, Hossain said that the people “have already conveyed a message that they don’t want to see this fascist and looter government in power further.”
Another BNP Standing Committee member, Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku, claimed that “the ten divisional rallies [held so far] are nothing but a warm-up. Fresh programs will be announced and then the movement will be launched to oust the government.”
So, what happens next? General elections are due in December. Will the AL heed the BNP’s demands and step down to hold elections under a neutral caretaker government?
Hasina is unlikely to make way for a caretaker government. She did not do so ahead of the general elections in 2014 and 2018.
She did not seek a mandate from the people of Bangladesh. Rather she relied on bureaucrats and the police to ensure that she got the mandate. As Japan’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Ito Naoki, pointed out recently “police officials were stuffing ballot boxes on the eve” of voting in the 2018 general election.
The AL government has been in power since January 2009. It has stacked institutions with party loyalists. Consequently, it wields enormous control over the military, police, media, bureaucracy, and other stakeholders of the state.
Yet the way forward for the ruling party will not be easy. The two basic pillars on which the AL government has relied so far appear to be giving way.
Hasina’s “More development less democracy” strategy is in trouble as the economy is in crisis. Bangladesh’s foreign reserves have depleted from $48 billion in August 2021 to $25 billion as of this month. Inflation is running at over 9 percent and the price of basic commodities, including food and fuel, are soaring. This has caused immense hardship to people and put Hasina’s development strategy in question.
The second pillar that has propped up the AL government is the support it received from Western countries and India. But the changing geopolitical reality amid the Ukraine-Russia conflict has pushed Bangladesh to lean more toward China and Russia.
Bangladesh’s relations with the U.S., too, have run into trouble. This is evident from the fact that the U.S. imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion for its human rights abuses.
Moreover, in response to the killing of a BNP activist in Dhaka on December 8, the White House issued a statement calling on the Hasina government to fully investigate reports of violence against journalists and human rights activists ahead of the December 10 Dhaka event.
A statement issued by Peter Huss, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, in the context of the violence against the opposition was even more explicit in expressing U.S. unhappiness with the state of affairs under AL rule. “The U.S. Embassy extends its condolences to the families of those killed and injured yesterday in Dhaka,” the statement said. “We are concerned about reports of intimidation and political violence in Dhaka and call on everyone to respect the rule of law and refrain from violence, harassment, and intimidation. We encourage government authorities to investigate these reports of violence and to protect the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”
The popularity of the BNP has grown in recent months. Its ten divisional rallies were attended by thousands of people. Bangladeshis are looking for political change and a growing number see the BNP as the best option.
However, if the AL government does not hold elections under a neutral government, the BNP has said it will not contest the election.
If Bangladesh’s main opposition party stays away from the election, what credibility will the vote have? How pressure from Bangladesh’s global partners – the U.S. India, Japan and China – might impact the AL’s decisions remains to be seen.