Think-tank: Bangladesh’s rival parties risk post-election chaos if they fail to break impasse

Ahammad Foyez
Think-tank: Bangladesh’s rival parties risk post-election chaos if they fail to break impasse Activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party run after clashing with police during a protest in Dhaka, Oct. 28, 2023.
[Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

Bangladesh’s one-sided election is setting the stage for more violence in the post-voting period because of growing discontent with the incumbent government and high inflation, the International Crisis Group warned in a report, days before Bangladeshis go to the polls.

The opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is boycotting the Jan. 7 election, has called for nationwide strikes on Saturday and Sunday when approximately 120 million Bangladeshis are eligible to cast ballots.

The government has announced it will spend about U.S. $109 million to “safeguard law and order” this weekend, nearly doubling that expenditure from the 2018 election. Some 800,000 police and soldiers will be deployed for election duty nationwide.

“The 7 January election will not resolve Bangladesh’s political crisis,” Pierre Prakash, Asia director of ICG, said in a press release accompanying the report, which was released Thursday. “Although it’s too late to postpone the vote, a flawed election provides only more reason to redouble efforts to get the ruling Awami League and its opponents talking again after the poll.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League party are poised to win a fourth consecutive term in Sunday’s vote. The South Asian country, however, has reached a dangerous political impasse, the Brussels-based think-tank said in its report.

“[T]he AL’s determination to hold on to power at any cost has corroded democracy in Bangladesh. Over the last decade, Hasina has established a firm grip on the country’s key institutions, including the bureaucracy, judiciary, security agencies and electoral authorities, filling them with loyalists. Her government has also persecuted opposition activists, civil society figures and journalists,” the report said. 

It warned that the deadlock in relations between the Awami League and BNP “could push the opposition to adopt more violent tactics.” 

“Although it may be impossible before polling day, it is incumbent on both sides to enter talks as early as possible to avoid a lengthy and potentially deadly political showdown. Foreign governments, for their part, should work together to cajole the two sides into negotiations aimed at forging a new political settlement,” ICG said.  

Army soldiers on election duty patrol a street in Dhaka, Jan. 3, 2024. [Mehedi Rana/BenarNews]

The report discusses a wide-ranging scenario for Bangladesh, highlighting the potential for a “balance of payments or banking crisis” that could exacerbate the country’s existing inflation issues and potential international pressure that could ultimately break Hasina’s hold on power.

“Just a few years ago, the AL’s grip on power in Bangladesh seemed unshakable. But a sharp economic downturn and readiness at home and abroad to contemplate a change in government have undermined its public support and reinvigorated the opposition,” ICG said in its more than 15,000-word report.

“Hasina’s determination to hold the election on her terms will increase the risk of violence, both before and after the polls.

“Given the level of domestic opposition it is facing, alongside economic and geopolitical headwinds, the AL has reasons to seek a compromise. While Hasina’s party may hold on to power in the short term, the opposition is likely to persist with its actions, and political and economic pressures could mount on the AL, with potentially violent repercussions.”

Badiul Alam Majumdar, who leads Citizens for Good Governance in Dhaka, a grassroots group, agreed with how the ICG’s report called into question the legitimacy of Hasina’s government. 

“The ICG report rightly pointed out that Hasina used her control of levers of state such as police, judiciary and civil service to undermine the opposition attempts to force her from office,” he told BenarNews.

“There’s no doubt that questions abound about the legitimacy of the next government. So a solution must be found through a dialogue between the major political parties,” he said.

Student activists from Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party hold a rally for the party’s candidates in the Dhaka University area, Jan. 4, 2024. [Jibon Ahmed/BenarNews]

In recent months, the BNP organized a series of rallies demanding that the government step aside for an interim government to shepherd the polls, but Hasina’s party has steadfastly rejected this.

Since Oct. 28 last year, when the BNP organized a grand rally that disintegrated into violence and was dispersed by the police, the party has escalated its protest with more hardline programs such as nationwide strikes and road blockades. These can often lead to violent confrontations with the police and activists from the ruling party.

Ten people died in political violence that weekend, and another 22 – mostly opposition members – have died since then amid a series of transportation blockades, vehicle arsons, and street clashes, according to media reports. Nine of the victims died in police custody and jails.

The BNP also says that more than 25,000 of its activists have been arrested since late October, but the government puts the number at around 11,000, according to the AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, a global network of over 300 organizations from 105 countries, led by the prominent digital rights advocacy group Access Now, urged Bangladesh authorities to ensure “unfettered access” to the internet on election day.

Calls for talks

When asked to comment, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior BNP official, told BenarNews it was difficult for the party to respond to ICG’s calls for inter-party dialogue when most of its senior leaders were in jail.

However, Abdur Rahman, who sits on the Awami League’s top decision-making body, told BenarNews, “We welcome dialogues only if they are held without any preconditions.”

“The possibility of a dialogue was foiled before this election because the opposition demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina first,” he said.

But the Awami League turned down the U.S. State Department’s calls for dialogue without any preconditions prior to the election, and the party’s leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric against the BNP in recent weeks, going so far as suggesting that their arch-rival party be disbanded.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters shout slogans during a protest rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 28, 2023. [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

Despite the Awami League’s hardened stance, the ICG report suggests that it is in the party’s interest to engage in talks with the opposition.

“Nowadays, the AL has lost much of its support because of the country’s economic malaise and the government’s repressive behaviour. The crackdown it has mounted against the opposition has also been harsher than at any time since the return of democracy in 1990-1991,” the report said. 

“In contrast, the BNP has mainly avoided resorting to the violence it used between 2013 and 2015 and kept its distance from Jamaat.”

But as the BNP’s largely peaceful protests appear to have failed to compel the government to meet their demands for a neutral caretaker government during elections, the opposition might come under pressure from its rank and file to opt for more forceful tactics.

“BNP leaders – many of whom are now in prison – will face pressure from factions within the party to revert to their old tactics of more overt violence,” the report said.


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