Awami League ally Jatiya Party wavers on Bangladesh election

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Awami League ally Jatiya Party wavers on Bangladesh election Bangladeshi supporters of the Jatiya Party wear paper hats bearing pictures of political candidates outside a polling station in Dhaka, Dec. 30, 2018.
Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

The Jatiya Party, considered an all-weather ally of Bangladesh’s ruling party, cast doubt Thursday about the fairness of the general election set for Jan. 7, citing concerns over possible rigging and low turnout while criticizing the government for failing to ensure competitive polls.

With the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) refusing to participate in an election under the incumbent government, the Jatiya Party’s potential boycott could undermine the election’s legitimacy, which appears to be driving the government to cajole new, smaller parties into participating, analysts said.

“We are hesitant and have yet to decide whether we will contest the polls,” Mujibul Haque Chunnu, the party’s general secretary, told BenarNews. “This is because of what we saw in the by-polls in Brahmanbaria and Lakshmipur.”

Local journalists reported at least two instances, caught in social media videos, of ruling Awami League activists stuffing ballots in the presence of poll officials, which led the Election Commission to halt the formalization of its candidates’ victories.

“The voters will not turn out to cast their ballots unless the opposition participates,” Chunnu said, referring to the BNP and its allies. “Only the ruling party activists tasked with stamping seals on the ballot papers will show up.”

The Jatiya Party, founded by former military dictator and long-time leader Hussain Muhammad Ershad, has a formidable base in Rangpur, the northern city that is his ancestral home. It has little support elsewhere in the country.

The party struck a formal alliance with the Awami League in 2008, securing 27 seats in the parliament, up from only 13 previously, and sharing cabinet portfolios after the alliance formed the government.

In 2014, the opposition BNP and its allies boycotted the election, leaving the ruling Awami League-led coalition to return to power with most seats uncontested.

Since then, the Jatiya Party has acted as a token opposition in the absence of the BNP, while several of its top leaders held cabinet positions under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Despite the BNP’s participation in the 2018 election alongside a coalition of leftist and right-wing parties, the ruling coalition still secured over 95% of the 300 parliamentary seats, amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

In that election, the Jatiya Party ran against the Awami League candidates in more than 100 races, but the 26 seats that it clinched did not have any contenders from the ruling party 

Resentment has brewed within the Jatiya Party’s rank and file as none of its leaders were included in the third consecutive cabinet formed by Hasina. 

BNP protests

For months, the BNP has organized protest rallies and, following the disruption of its grand rally on Oct. 28 by deadly clashes with the police, has called for repeated strikes and transportation blockades.

Supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party rally in the Naya Paltan area in Dhaka, Oct. 28, 2023. [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

On Tuesday, three United Nations special rapporteurs expressed concerns over the rise of political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders and use of excessive force by the authorities.

At least 10 people died during clashes between the opposition activists and the police, which arrested thousands of the party’s activists.

The BNP has demanded that Hasina, who leads the Awami League, resign to make way for a neutral interim government to shepherd the election. 

The scenario has left the Jatiya leaders wrestling with dueling factors, said Shakhawat Hossain Sayantha, a commentator who authored several books on the BNP.

“If the Jatiya Party participates in the next election despite BNP’s boycott, the election’s legitimacy will be strengthened,” he told BenarNews. “But if the Jatiya Party boycotts the polls, it would be a big blow to the Awami League.” 

During a recent Jatiya leadership meeting, grassroots-level activists overwhelmingly favored boycotting the upcoming election, according to local reports.

“But the top leaders, who can become members of the parliament or even ministers in the Awami League’s future cabinet, are hesitant to support the idea,” Sayantha said.

The party also faces internal rivalries. Chairman Ghulam Muhammed Quader, the younger brother of Ershad, has been vocal in his criticism of the government. Ershad’s influential widow, Rowshan, meanwhile, appears to maintain close ties with Hasina.

Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and a former professor of political science at Chittagong University, told BenarNews that by refusing to commit to participating in the election, the Jatiya Party is likely bolstering its negotiating leverage with the Awami League. 

He said the 2014 BNP boycott of the election did not prevent the Jatiya Party from forming formal and informal alliances with the Awami League.

“I think the Jatiya Party will eventually end up contesting the polls. They are simply waiting to see whether the BNP boycotts or not,” he said.

“If the BNP boycotts, the Jatiya will want to field candidates in all 300 constituencies and try to secure as many seats as possible through bargaining with the Awami League. They would in no way follow suit with the BNP because, in that case, they risk being replaced by new parties that popped up recently.”

Ahmed said the Trinamool BNP (Grassroots BNP), a new party that brands itself as a breakaway faction of the BNP, could potentially succeed the Jatiya Party as the token opposition.

The Trinamool BNP is under the leadership of Shamsher M. Chowdhury, a former BNP leader and ex-foreign secretary who left the party in 2015. It has also drawn in Taimur Alam Khandakar, another BNP official who ran for mayor in Narayanganj city in 2011.

Although the new party hasn’t attracted many notable BNP deserters yet, its potential to emerge as the new political darling is a source of concern for the Jatiya, according to Ahmed.

Shajahan Khan, an Awami League leader, said potential boycotts by the BNP or even the Jatiya Party should not dictate the election legitimacy.

“The issue is whether the people go to the polling centers and cast their ballots,” he told BenarNews. “We would like the BNP, the Jatiya Party and others to participate in the elections. If they do not, no problem.”


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