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Who Benefits From Street Politics in Bangladesh?

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Who Benefits From Street Politics in Bangladesh?

The BNP’s decision to go for all-out street protests could backfire.

Who Benefits From Street Politics in Bangladesh?

Activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party run from tear gas shell fired by police during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Conflict over a neutral election-time caretaker government between Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League (AL), and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has turned violent. Both the ruling party and the opposition are taking a hard line, inspiring gloomy political prospects for both before and after the general election scheduled for January 7, 2024. 

The shift from politics to a violent protest surprised many. In the previous three months, the opposition BNP had successfully mobilized tens of thousands of people in mass rallies in Dhaka. These rallies were peaceful, but the demonstration on October 28 turned violent. There are conflicting narratives about who triggered the violence. While opposition parties point the finger at AL activists, the government and law enforcement officials deny this and accuse activists of the opposition parties. Most senior BNP leaders have been detained over the violence. 

Another significant turn in political activities in the last few weeks is the reappearance of general strikes and blockades, tactics not seen in Bangladesh in recent years.

The political program has already turned violent, and experts fear the situation will only get worse in the remaining weeks before the election. 

In an op-ed in the Hindustan Times, Avinash Paliwal, a security and foreign policy expert who teaches at SOAS University of London, asked a fundamental question: Who actually benefits? Importantly, he noted, both sides believe they will come out ahead:

The AL believes the use of force and mounting casualties in the Opposition camp will rupture party supremo Tarique Rahman’s command and control over the BNP. Such a prospect could influence Rahman to return to Dhaka for reasons of political survival and face incarceration, or forever be condemned to the ignominy of exile. In this worldview, the BNP’s experiment with force is akin to falling into a trap of Hasina’s making.

The exact opposite is equally true. The BNP believes it is Hasina who is falling into the Opposition’s trap. Facing public discontent in the face of a deeply felt cost-of-living crisis, unable to arrest economic decline with forex reserves plummeting by half to $21 billion from $42 billion in July 2022, and under pressure from Washington, D.C. and European capitals over democratic backsliding, Hasina has been reduced to crushing dissent using force. Such clampdowns help the BNP’s image as being a disciplined force that is defending itself from AL henchmen and the police.

This question – who is “trapping” whom? – is important to understand both parties’ calculations in taking a hard line.      

There are pros and cons for both the AL and the BNP in such a political climate. However, without any external intervention from the international community or other institutions, the turn toward street politics seems to advantage the AL. From the ruling party’s point of view, the political climate gives it legitimacy to crack down on BNP leaders and activists.  

Second, the government can blame street protests and general strikes for the already abysmal economic conditions. In that sense, the BNP has just gifted the AL an excuse to explain away Bangladesh’s economic woes. 

Third, in terms of sheer muscle power, the AL is far ahead of the BNP, which has been locked out of Parliament for nearly 15 years. The BNP is highly unlikely to take control by numbers alone. As such, by engaging in violent protests, the BNP took the battle to an arena where the opposition had a low chance of emerging victorious. 

However, all the equations can change if there is any external intervention, and this may be what the BNP is banking on. The BNP can benefit by positioning itself as a victim of government repression. After the violence, the BNP now has added a new demand that could play well in foreign capitals: the release of its leaders and activists. 

Last month, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir reportedly said the commitment of the Western countries toward democracy in Bangladesh encouraged his party’s activists to carry out the ongoing one-point movement – i.e. insisting on a caretaker government as a prerequisite for any elections. Even if the BNP received a signal from the Western powers, however, depending solely on external intervention would be a gamble for a major political party that has been out of power since 2008.       

In my opinion, street protests in the form of general strikes and blockades alone will not help the BNP gain much from this political climate. BNP leaders should understand the change in the dynamics of political activism that took place in the last decade. Street protests do not have the same power they had 15 years ago, when the AL helped oust the BNP-led Four Party Alliance government. Many socioeconomic changes have contributed to this change. Among them, the two most important factors are the public’s increased economic activity and fewer “session jams” – or forced closures – at educational institutions. 

Finding dedicated leaders and activists who can sacrifice their time and money to take part in dedicated street protests for a few weeks is hard now. With educational institutions operating more regularly, it is not easy for students to get involved in political agitation for a considerable time, either. More importantly, the public, despite their dissatisfaction with the government, might not support general strikes and blockades for long, lest it jeopardize already precarious livelihoods. 

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have more robust capabilities, including surveillance mechanisms, to suppress political protest now than ever before. As such, I predict that the BNP and its alliances might not be able to continue the agitation long enough to weaken the government. 

The history of recent protests worldwide also supports this idea. In his book, “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution,” journalist Vincent Bevins argued that the 2010s was a decade of protests, but most of these protests failed to achieve their goals. Street protests across the globe did not succeed in achieving political change in Hong Kong and Iran. Even in Sri Lanka, where protesters successfully ousted an unpopular president, he was replaced by a figure seen as beholden to the previous regime. 

From a Bangladeshi perspective, the street protests the BNP and its allies carried out before the 2014 general election were exceptional in recent history – but even this movement did not see success in ousting the government. 

This brings us back to Paliwal’s question: between the BNP and the AL, who fell into the “trap” of taking a hard line? Thus far, it seems the BNP has many disadvantages in the unfolding political dynamics if the West does not come to its rescue the way the opposition party seems to expect. 

That said, in a political climate like this, events can occur that are beyond calculation. Political observers will continue to watch how the AL government handles not only the general election but also the abysmal economic conditions, especially high inflation.