Bangladesh is heading into a tumultuous election season. The country is scheduled to vote in general elections in January 2024. Elections in 2014 and 2018 were controversial and Bangladeshis as well as their country’s foreign friends are keenly observing events and guessing what lies ahead.
In this article, I put forward three scenarios based on four fundamentals about the politics of the country as it stands currently.
The first fundamental is that there will be an election. This is because it is written so in the constitution and the ruling Awami League sees itself as upholders of the constitutional order and the guarantor of the country’s democratic credentials. This is one of Awami League’s strengths, but also a weakness. It cannot not hold an election. Furthermore, the country’s educated middle classes are a significant constituency for the Awami League and to them democracy is an important element in their nationalist identity. However blemished the actual vote, there will be the semblance of an election. And it will be held on time.
Secondly, the Awami League will win. There are two reasons for this. First, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a very able political player and has built a formidable coalition of forces that includes the armed forces, the security agencies, the courts, the administration, much of the media, and most of the business class. This coalition – a ruling coalition in a wider sense – will be reluctant at best to welcome the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition party, into government offices, especially now, at a time of some distress. We do need to keep in mind that until quite recently, economic growth and development work were positive. Much can be said about the country’s rulers, but they have been relatively efficient in creating certain forms of development, and this, to many, justifies the Awami League and in particular Sheikh Hasina’s continued rule.
A second reason to hold that the Awami League will win is that many of the ruling party and the ruling coalition would have to flee the country if there is a change of government, and they will do what is needed to prevent that eventuality. Over the years, many have engaged in corruption. They have become rich and hence vulnerable. Individuals in the police, courts and administration have likewise made themselves guilty partners of the system, and have threatened, imprisoned, harassed opponents, taken over their businesses or assets, and in general personally benefitted from being part of the ruling dispensation. Such people exist at all levels of the state, from ministries to local levels. Any election loss will mean retribution time, which will hurt terribly.
In short, they cannot lose.
We could add a third reason why the Awami League will win, and that is that it has powerful friends. As with her ability in building a dominant domestic coalition, Sheikh Hasina has also built one internationally. India, China, Russia, and many others are supporters who will not be particularly bothered about election malpractices as long as stability is ensured. The EU and the U.S. will be bothered, but they also have other worries and will not have much impact on nationalistic sentiments.
A third fundamental is that BNP will boycott any election under the present government. It has said so repeatedly, and the painful lesson from the two previous elections (2014 and 2018), when the vote was rigged in the AL’s favor, is such that they will be unable to trust the government to play by the rulebook.
A fourth fundamental is that if there were a completely free and fair election, BNP would win. This is not because the BNP consists of particularly competent people or represents values and ideas that appeal to the ordinary voter. It is because there are basically only two political parties in Bangladesh – the Awami League and the BNP – and after 15 years most voters are quite tired of the staid, arrogant and corrupt ways of most Awami League leaders. The only alternative is BNP.
Scenario One: Increasing Violence
To prevent a repeat of the 2014 election, which was held despite a boycott by the BNP and other opposition parties, the BNP will double its efforts to mobilize on the streets, possibly aligned with the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamists who also fear another four years of Awami League rule. As the election efforts go ahead despite their energy-consuming and strenuous street protests, individual leaders and activists facing yet another defeat may well take to violence even if party higher-ups prohibit it.
On the streets, BNP activists will be met by the police. They will be incarcerated, and they and their family members will be harassed by the security agencies, the courts, and the administration. Even school authorities can harass individual BNP supporting teachers or students. Businesses may suffer, permits may be withdrawn, and new municipal fees may appear.
In the end, as a vote looms without BNP participation and it finds itself face-to-face with utter defeat and the prospects of another four years in the wilderness, frantic protests will take place before and after the actual vote. Activists will resort to burning buses, disrupting everyday life, throwing homemade bombs and bricks at law enforcers – much like the situation in 2006 and 2014. Awami League activists with clubs and guns may join the street battles. Such a situation will be ‘managed’ by the law enforcers and the legal system, and despite protests, the rulers will prevail.
This scenario is not unlikely, perhaps a 7 out of 10.
Scenario Two: Economic Woes
The most dreaded situation from the rulers’ perspective is one in which a severe economic downturn mobilizes large numbers of ordinary people into protest or at least into refusing to accept the prospect of another term for Sheikh Hasina and her team. For the current ruling dispensation, its main selling point is its record of peace and stability, and of development. An economic downturn that affects not only the poor – whose role in politics is indirect at best – but the middle classes, including the families of military personnel, and the all-important business classes, would undermine this claim. An economic downturn can still be managed but only to a point. Businesspeople can be bullied into silence and military personnel can be bought off. But such strategies are costly and not necessarily effective. Businesspeople who speak negatively of the government to their international partners will have a huge impact on the government’s international standing, on government earnings, and on its ability to continue to claim a development record. Besides, even army officers, government officials and judges have extended families who would suffer under an economic downturn. The loss of legitimacy and justification among the middle classes if coupled with street protests would be a major risk. There is a host of examples from around the world of long-lasting governments losing suddenly to middle-class protesters.
This scenario is not entirely unlikely but dependent on a host of external factors. With the war in Ukraine and economic difficulties globally, it cannot be dismissed as an eventuality even if the probability seems relatively low. Let us say a 3 out of 10. Any fallout also depends on how well the situation is being “played” by the two main players – Sheikh Hasina and Tarique Rahman, and being closer to the levers the Prime Minister seems to have the upper hand.
Scenario Three: Another Compromise
In 1996, the then-ruling BNP sought to stage-manage the election but faced massive protests and finally had to relent and resign. This is when the formula of the caretaker government instrument as part of the regular election cycle was floated by a group of intellectuals and stakeholders. Because the Awami League insists on it, this formula will not apply again. However, the intellectual and political force that went into the compromise in 1996 might today be able to design a different formula, one that would be acceptable to both parties. It would have to have another name and constitutional anchorage, and it would need to be agreeable to important stakeholders such as the armed forces. A decisive element that would need to be in place is its replicability: If the Awami League is to resign from power now, they would need assurances, nay solid guarantees, provided by the likes of the armed forces, that they would have a fair chance of returning to power next time around. Judging from their experiences of 1996 and 2006, the Awami League has little reason to trust the BNP.
A serious constraint on any change of rulers is the fear experienced among those currently in power about what will happen to their lives and properties should their enemies take over the reins. One element in any new transition formula would have to be an assurance that lives and properties of the current rulers will not be touched and that crimes perpetrated while in power will not be subject to investigation and criminal procedure. This may be a bit of a pill to swallow and is unlikely to go down well with BNP leaders and activists, who have fled from their homes over many years without seeing much of their families or attending their businesses. But a peaceful transition is unlikely to take place without such an amnesty – applicable to party men, judges, police officers and members of the security forces.
Another constraint is the doubt that many hold about the capability of BNP leaders to lead the country. In some countries, it is not uncommon for the leading opposition party to have designated individuals responsible for certain portfolios – foreign affairs, finance, industries, etc. – in order to assure markets and allies that there will be a competent cabinet after an election win. As it is, there is very little communication from the BNP that would assure voters or interest groups of a competent government should they be allowed to form one. In fact, there is not even much of an election program that the BNP has committed to. The 10-point program launched earlier this year does not feature much and seems replaced by a one-point agenda – the resignation of Sheikh Hasina. Without the ability to convince crucial groups of its attractiveness, BNP is not likely to be able to upset the ruling coalition.
This scenario is, under the current circumstances, not likely to happen – a 1 out of 10. The reason is that the situation is not dire enough to undermine Awami League’s capacity to manage the election and so its willingness to enter negotiations for a compromise is nil.
Another managed election is the likelier scenario – with its paraphernalia of BNP candidates barred on flimsy grounds, a low voter turnout, ballot box stuffing, videos of Awami League goons harassing election officers and all the rest. How will the voter react?
Probably much the same way as earlier, with a shrug. In the political culture that has developed in Bangladesh, the election campaign is not about winning the hearts and minds of the voters but a game of wits already underway. The mobilizations, street protests, statements by Obaidul Quader and Fakhrul Islam, the videos by Tarique Rahman, the city corporation elections recently held, the dillydallying leftists and the mumbling Islamists, the changes to the election law and the much-maligned Digital Security Act, the food prices – all are part of the actual campaign. This is the campaign, this competition of wits and capability, and it has been going on for a while. It is a power struggle that is not settled by a final vote, and although the vote itself is appreciated and desired by the voters, when the dust settles, they still orient themselves towards the winner of this epic battle and accept the outcome as proof of one party being the stronger, smarter and more capable. Legitimacy in a democratic definition, based on winning at the ballot, is not a sentiment strong enough to mobilize popular protests.