Updated at 5:47 p.m. ET on 2018-10-23
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and most of its coalition partners have joined forces with a new political alliance, whose 81-year-old leader is emerging as a potential rival to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina amid looming elections.
Following a meeting with BNP officials in Dhaka on Monday, 18 of its partner parties in the coalition said they were siding with the National Unity Front (NUF) led by Kamal Hossain, a former minister in Hasina’s Awami League party when her father governed Bangladesh in the 1970s.
Officials with the BNP – whose top two leaders were convicted earlier this year on corruption charges, effectively sidelining the pair from the polls – announced over the weekend that the party was joining Hossain’s NUF.
Leaders of the multi-party bloc headed by BNP on Monday “agreed to extend support to the Oikya Front,” Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a member of the BNP’s highest policy-making standing committee, told BenarNews, using the Bengali name for the alliance spearheaded by the octogenarian Hossain.
“Most of the parties want to join the Oikya Front to oust this government,” he added.
On Saturday, the three-party National Unity Front announced it was dropping a fourth partner, the Bikalpa Dhara party led by A.Q.M. Badruddoza Chowdhury, who had insisted that the alliance not permit the faith-based Jamaat-e-Islami party – a longtime ally of BNP – into its ranks.
Jamaat is widely viewed in Bangladesh as having collaborated with “anti-liberation” forces during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan.
The Islamic party was not among the parties that allied themselves with Hossain’s group on Monday. The BNP, earlier on, had considered linking up with the front when it was led by both Hossain and Chowdhury, who were seen as potential prime ministers in waiting.
“Now, the Oikya Front would not object to Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami joining the alliance,” Khasru said.
The BNP, meanwhile, has not declared its intentions for the coming elections.
Its figurehead, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 73, is ailing and imprisoned on corruption charges. Her son, Tareq Rahman, is in exile and on trial in absentia for a grenade attack on a ruling party rally that killed 24 people in August 2004.
Along with its announcement Saturday, the NUF issued a list of demands. These included that a neutral caretaker administration run the country during the electoral period, the army be deployed to safeguard the polls – which are expected to take place in December or January – and that Khaleda Zia be freed from prison.
On Sunday, Hasina blasted the NUF by accusing Kamal Hossain of shaking hands with “killers and corrupt” politicians in the BNP.
The next day, Obaidul Quader, Awami’s general secretary, branded the National Unity Front as a “fake” organization and said it would not make a dent in votes for the ruling party.
“This Dr. Kamal Hossain criticized the BNP for the August 21 grenade attack and it supports militant activities. Now, he has forged an alliance with the convicted Khaleda Zia and terrorist Tareq Rahman,” Faruk Khan, a member of the Awami League’s highest presidium council, told BenarNews.
He was referring to the 2004 grenade attack, which was an assassination attempt against Hasina. He also accused Hossain’s group of being “obstructionist” vis-à-vis the next general election.
BNP and its 20-party alliance opted not to participate in the last general election, in 2014, saying it would not be free and fair. Before that election, the Awami government had amended the constitution to remove a clause requiring that a neutral caretaker administration govern the nation during elections.
Hasina has been in power since 2009, which together with her earlier 5-year stint (1996-2001) as PM makes her Bangladesh’s longest-serving leader.
The alliance between Hossain’s National Unity Front and the coalition headed by BNP will “create pressure on the government” because expectations among the electorate will grow during the run-up to the polls, said Tareque Shamsur Rehman, a political science professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka.
“Now, they can contest the polls under his leadership,” he told BenarNews, referring to the BNP and Kamal Hossain.
“Now, we have to see whether the government takes tough police action against the leaders of the front as they usually do for those from the BNP and Jamaat. If the government takes no police action, the new opposition front will get stronger as elections near,” he said.
CORRECTION: This version corrects the headline and text that erroneously reported that faith-based party Jamaat-e-Islami had joined the new alliance led by Kamal Hossain.