A short ferry crossing across the mighty Meghna river of Bangladesh takes you to the rural Brahmanbaria-6 constituency, some three hours away from the country’s Capital. A bastion of the ruling Awami League, the mood here is upbeat and celebratory amidst feverish campaigning for the upcoming parliamentary polls.
There’s frenzied sloganeering by children atop tempos. They shout “Joy Bangla” and “nauka, nauka” (boat, the Awami League’s party symbol) in unison, their arms raised to the skies while they rhythmically spring up and down in a happy jig.
Polls for the country’s 350-member Jatiyo Shangsad (House of the Nation) are scheduled for December 30 and the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina led Awami League is aiming to win an unprecedented third term in office. Her party is in alliance with former President HM Ershad’s Jatiya party yet again, giving it 26 seats.
Of the 350 parliamentary seats, 50 are reserved for women who are later elected by the 300 elected MPs.
Just as the seemingly calm Meghna river can very quickly turn treacherous, the poll scene which has been largely violence-free so far can, as many fear, change for the worst at any times. Any one incident can change the voting pattern at the last minute is the common refrain here.
Unlike the 2014 elections when victory was a cakewalk for the Awami League after arch foe Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the polls, this time around the Awami League has a tough contest at hand. For, the BNP which is the main Opposition party in Bangladesh is back in the fray having realised that the only choice before it was either to participate or perish electorally.
The BNP is contesting even though its demand for elections under a caretaker government and the unconditional release of the pro-Pakistan leader Begum Khaleda Zia currently serving a prison term following conviction for funds embezzlement was not accepted by the pro-India Sheikh Hasina government. The fact that for the first ever time no neutral, caretaker administration is in place for the elections too is seen as something unique in the country, which has seen democratic governments interspersed with military rule over the years.
In convincing the Opposition to contest, Sheikh Hasina has played her cards well, conceding to some of their demands − for instance the poll date was shifted by a week − while not agreeing to others. In the months preceding the announcement of polls, the seasoned politician that Sheikh Hasina has spent a total of 24 hours in consultations with Opposition parties, working out a modus vivendi which would allow them to announce that they would participate.
Contesting after a gap of five years, the BNP has joined hands with the Jatiya Oikya Front (United National Front), a four-party alliance led by Dr Kamal Hossain of the Gono Forum. Khaleda Zia’s party is also banking on its traditional ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) − it was part of the BNP government between 2001-06 − to help it cross the finish line again.
The fact that Dr Hossain has joined hands with the BNP and the JeI has come as a rude surprise to many in the country given his secular credentials. The 82-year-old leading lawyer was once with the Awami League and as a close associate of “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, played a key role in the framing of the Bangladesh Constitution. He also played a role in reviving the Awami League after Sheikh Hasina returned from exile to Bangladesh in 1981.
Considered an avowed secularist, Dr Hossain’s political tango with the BNP and JeI in these elections is being seen as a contradiction that he will find hard to get over.
Asked why the BNP has returned to the electoral fold despite all its demands not having been met, Goyeshwar Chandra who is a part of the 19-member policy-making standing committee of the party said, “We believe in multi-party democracy. Those who believe in elections cannot wait for long without contesting them.”
But it’s really the anti-liberation Jamaat-e-Islami that holds the key to an embattled BNP hoping to return to power after 12 years in the wilderness. It finds itself without chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia. Her son and acting chairperson Tarique Rahman who was convicted of masterminding an attempt to assassinate Sheikh Hasina lives in exile in London though he’s calling the shots from London − having chosen the candidates by interviewing them via Skype − backed by Pakistan.
Banned by Sheikh Hasina and de-registered by the Election Commission, the Pakistan-leaning Jamaat which had opposed the very creation of Bangladesh is fielding candidates thanks to the BNP. The strong cadre support it enjoys can help swing votes in JeI’s favour.
The JeI has fielded candidates from 35 seats, with 24 contesting under the BNP symbol of a sheaf of paddy and 10 as Independents. Over 50 JeI candidates would have been contesting these elections but for the fact that many were rejected at the scrutiny of nominations stage.
Like the BNP, this election is crucial for the Jamaat too as it would be hoping to defeat bitter rival Sheikh Hasina whose government in recent years put on trial before the war crimes tribunal and executed many of its senior leaders for involvement in war crimes during the 1971 war of liberation.
“The JeI is very serious about winning some seats for it realises that it’s in an existential situation, If they don’t, they know they will be in political difficulty,” said a keen observer of the poll scene in Bangladesh, who did not wish to be named. With a strong support base in north Bangladesh and in the country’s bordering areas plus money power, the Jamaat’s influence cannot be discounted.
Many here feel that there is no alternative to a leader like Sheikh Hasina who is respected even by some of her fiercest rivals. Yet, the fear of anti-incumbency is in the air as well as whispers of corruption against the Sheikh Hasina government. The BNP also alleges its leaders and cadres are being detained and arrested at random.
With the battle lines drawn, the Awami League is banking on the development work carried out by the Sheikh Hasina government to help it win an unprecedented third term. Listing her government’s achievements while releasing her party’s manifesto at a city hotel early last week, the Awami League leader said it achieved GDP growth of 7.86 percent in 2017-18 which is higher than other developing countries. The push for a digital Bangladesh which has been spearheaded by her US-based son Sajib Wazed Joy also has appeal among young voters. However, there are still challenges for the party to face. With its per capita income rising to US 1,751 US dollars, Bangladesh has been declared a lower middle-income country by the World Bank.
As political parties step up their campaign before polling, rumours that the Opposition may pull out at the last minute if it senses defeat are swirling in the political circles here. It remains to be seen if the Opposition will yet again give a walkover to the Awami League ensuring that Sheikh Hasina continues to remain at the helm in Bangladesh.