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Monday Morning Meeting on Emerging Opposition Politics in Bangladesh: Would It Be a Challenge to Sheikh Hasina?

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  • January 09, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. Smruti S. Pattanaik, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA, spoke on the topic "Emerging Opposition Politics in Bangladesh: Would It Be a Challenge to Sheikh Hasina?” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 09 January 2023. The session was moderated by Dr. Ashok K. Behuria, Senior Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA. Maj.Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), the Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, and MP-IDSA scholars enriched the discussion.

    Executive Summary

    A massive protest was organized by the leading opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) against the government on 10 December 2022 in Dhaka. A large number of protesters gathered at Dhaka’s Golapbagh. These protests organised by the opposition BNP are massive enough to demonstrate that re-election of Sheikh Hasina’s Government in the January 2024 election would not be easy. There are many factors which play a defining role in the next election.

    Detailed Report

    The Monday Morning Meeting commenced with Dr. Ashok K. Behuria, Senior Fellow, South Asia Center, MP-IDSA discussing the details of the nationwide massive protest organised by the BNP against the government on 10 December 2022 in Dhaka. According to Dr. Behuria, the massive numbers of protesters are enough to upset the government. He mentioned that the Sheikh Hasina government is in its third term.

    Dr. Pattanaik initiated the discussion with a description of the opposition political parties in Bangladesh. Where some of the parties, especially the left groups are an integral part of civil society movements, some of the parties are part of the two broad alliances led by the incumbent Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). For example, BNP was associated with a 20-party coalition. It is now reduced to a 12-party coalition. Similarly, the AL has a 14-party coalition. Apart from these two major political parties, other parties, except for Jatiyo Party and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, do not have significant electoral presence in the country.

    BNP and Its Alliance

    BNP was a part of a 20-party alliance in the last election held in December 2018. The BNP-led alliance participated in the 2018 national election under the banner of the Jatiya Oikya Front, which also included former Foreign Minister, Dr. Kamal Hossain's Gono Forum. During 2018, the BNP-led coalition managed to get only 7 seats in total and 293 seats were won by the AL in an election that is perceived as controversial and the government is accused of ballot stuffing and this election is referred by some as ‘midnight’ election. In electoral politics, the AL is confident that it can win the next election even though the opposition rallies made Sheikh Hasina address a rally in Chittagong in an effort of ‘show of strength’.

    Ms. Pattanaik talked about the dissolution of the coalition of Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP. Jamaat Ameer argued that for the last five years, there has been no joint program with the BNP and the alliance has lost its political relevance in this context. Back in 2018 prior to the election in Bangladesh, there was a big question about whether the Jamaat will be part of the BNP or not because some important leaders inside the BNP spoke against the BNP’s alliance with Jamaat. However, electoral considerations made them to stick together and Jamaat which was deregistered as a political party fought the election on BNP’s symbol. It is a well-known fact that the Jamaat has a 12 percent vote bank in Bangladesh and they managed to get 18 seats in 1991 and in 1996 they received 8.6% of votes and won only 3 seats. The JI rose in politics only after it entered an electoral alliance with the BNP prior to 2001 elections. After leaving the BNP led opposition coalition, Jamaat has applied for registration as the Bangladesh Development Party.

    Religious Political Groups in Bangladesh

    There are two major religious groups in Bangladesh, one is Jamaat- e- Islami which has recently applied for registration as the Bangladesh Development Party and another one is Hefazat e Islam which defines itself as a political group. Jamaat is ideologically a very strong party with a dedicated cadre. The party members are associated with financial institutions, banks, have their chain of hospitals, educational institutions etc. which employ well-qualified cadres. Its stint in power between the period 2001 to 2006 benefitted the party and it expanded its network. On the other hand, Hefazat-e- Islam mostly controls Qaumi madrassas and madrassa students are its captive supporters. Many leaders belonging to this group are also hold positions in other smaller religious political parties. In the last election, one more religious political party that stood third in terms of support base is Islami Shasontantra Andolan.

    Civil Society in Bangladesh

    Civil society in Bangladesh is also divided along ideological lines. Supporters are divided along party lines and participate in the party programmes even though they are not members of political parties. Civil society in Bangladesh is very vibrant and has played a significant role in preserving the plural character of the state, culture, language, minority rights, issues of livelihood, gender etc. There are civil society groups that work to preserve Islamic values in society and see to it that no laws violate the tenets of Sharia. Bangladesh civil society is very much opposed to military/authoritarian regimes and support democracy. People across the civil society want to change but they are equally apprehensive about the character of the next regime.

    Stakeholders in Favour of the Status Quo

    Since the last 15 years, various stakeholders have aligned themselves with the Sheikh Hasina regime and have benefitted from it. Both the government and its stakeholders depend on each other for their sustainability. The long rule of AL has also resulted in massive politicisation of bureaucracy as well as state institutions. Such politicisation is not new in Bangladesh’s political history. Profiteering from the regime has become a hallmark whether it pertains to arrest or selection of candidates for local body and national elections. The character of the Bangladesh Parliament been changed over a period of time. More than 60 percent of current members of Parliament in Bangladesh are businessmen.

    Issues that Will Determine the Ballot in Bangladesh

    On the government side, it is said that economic development and stability in Bangladesh are the key achievements of the government which will be determining factors for the upcoming elections. In 2021, Bangladesh saw 7.2 percent economic growth and in 2022 it was 6.2 percent. This is despite the pandemic which affected Bangladesh’s readymade garment exports as well as remittances. In the past decade, Bangladesh has witnessed infrastructure development, and achieved energy sufficiency, till the Russia-Ukraine war hit the global energy market. The government has taken a decision to address the shortage of foreign currency by curbing imports of non-essential goods and has also taxed industries which are using imported gas.

    There are three important factors. First, to hold a multiparty election. BNP may not participate in such an election but there will be other political parties who will participate in the election conducted by the Election Commission of Bangladesh. Second, managing the perception of the west regarding credibility of the election is another important factor. Apart from these, managing the domestic stakeholders would also be significant. In this context, neutrality of the armed forces would be important. India would watch this election as domestic permutation and combination takes place with re-alignment of political forces, prior to the election.

    The Deputy Director General, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi said that India is an important factor for Bangladesh but Bangladesh is also a defining factor for security of northeast.

    There were questions regarding what would be main electoral issues and whether issues raised by political parties are any different than those raised in past election.

    Ms. Pattanaik gave insightful responses to comments and questions from the participants.

    The report was prepared by Mr. Shubham Thorat, Intern, South Asia Centre, MP-IDSA.