Bangladesh Faces Political Upheaval Ahead of January Polls

The political milieu in Bangladesh has been fraught with tension, climaxing in weeks of protests and violent clashes, casting a shadow of apprehension as the scheduled general election on January, 07, 2024, approaches. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), reinvigorated as the main opposition force, has intensified its protests, fervently demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The crux of their discontent revolves around the insistence on establishing a neutral interim government before the general election, a demand staunchly rebuffed by the incumbent Awami League (AL)-led government. This singular point of contention has deepened the schism between the AL and the BNP, accentuated by the AL’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive term, further delineating a widening political chasm. Both major parties exhibit reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue, casting doubt on the prospects for reconciliation before the impending elections.

In a noteworthy display of strength, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami orchestrated a “grand rally” on October, 28, advocating their “one-point demand” for a neutral interim election-time government. In response, the AL called for a “peace rally” on the same day. Regrettably, what began as a peaceful assembly devolved into violence, necessitating police intervention to regain control. BNP activists became embroiled in clashes with both police and AL supporters. The day-long street battle, despite initial police restraint, escalated into violence from the BNP rally. This tumult resulted in significant casualties, with BNP supporters attacking police, journalists, setting fire to a police hospital, and assaulting the Chief Justice’s residence of the Supreme Court.

While the BNP alleges that the violence was either deliberately provoked or part of government sabotage to discredit their protests. But, the undeniable fact remains—the damage and destruction cannot be credibly denied. In response, the government has initiated a crackdown on the BNP’s ranks and files. The move has applauded by the AL as a necessary response to the October atrocities.

Subsequently, the opposition has shifted its political tactics from public demonstrations to nationwide strikes and blockades. As of last week in November, at least 180 public transports were set ablaze. The BNP attempts to portray these incidents as sabotage orchestrated by government agencies or AL supporters. While the AL endeavors to exploit these blockades and strikes as part of their election campaign.

In my opinion, the BNP and its allies have unwittingly fallen into the Awami League’s political stratagem by fomenting violence on October, 28. It would be prudent for the BNP to sidestep this Machiavellian ploy orchestrated by the Awami League, thereby enhancing the visibility of their nonviolent campaign and conveying a resounding message to Western nations through heightened public engagement.

Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) marks the inception of a US-led alliance strategically positioned to counterbalance China. Bangladesh and other South Asian nations find themselves at a crossroad amid this superpower rivalry. After the midpoint of President Biden’s tenure, the United States, the European Union, and predominantly Western governments have been exerting pressure on Bangladesh for enhancements in democratic processes, human rights, and freedom of expression. Notably, the opposition party BNP and its allies have embraced this initiative.

The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government has enjoyed unwavering support from India over the past decade. However, following the recent G20 summit in India, the United States has recalibrated its policy towards India, signaling a reluctance to cede full leadership to India in the South Asian context. The 2 + 2 dialogue in India has further revealed a divergence between India and the United States concerning their stance on Bangladesh. Conversely, China and Russia have been critical of the United States, branding its actions as unwarranted “interference” in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The BNP has denounced Russia and China for their positions on Bangladesh.

Western nations have advocated for a dialogue to resolve Bangladesh’s political impasse. While the AL has occasionally agreed to dialogue, it closed this option after announcing the election schedule on November 7. Meanwhile, the BNP has remained relatively silent and less interested to sit with the AL.

The political turbulence unfolds against a backdrop of economic hardship, with a significant portion of the population grappling with the escalating cost of living, particularly the rise in food prices. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have halved, dropping from $42 billion to $21 billion by July 2023. Earlier this year, Bangladesh sought assistance from the IMF. Recent concerns expressed by the United States regarding labor law reform in Bangladesh suggest potential dire consequences for the country’s RMG sector in terms of exports and imports.

The BNP’s strategy aims to leverage Western sentiments and capitalize on public discontent regarding economic challenges. Their movement seeks to corner Hasina into either stepping down or resorting to violence, thereby instigating broader political strife. Hasina, within this limited context, faces two options: reinstate an election-time interim government or relinquish power to the military. While the military’s intervention may not immediately favor the BNP, it could eventually level the playing field. Conversely, the AL advocates upholding the constitutional process, gaining moral strength to counter adversities. They believe that lawful pressure can disrupt BNP’s leader Tarique Rahman’s command and control. If BNP’s chain of command falters, Rahman’s choices would narrow down to either returning to Dhaka for political survival and potential incarceration or accepting political disaster while remaining in exile.

Amid persistent unrest, the imperative to uphold the right to freedom of assembly and safeguard the well-being of peaceful protestors remains paramount but also a gargantuan task. In this broad and acrimonious political context, compromise is perceived as an existential political threat. The destiny of the nation, inhabited by 180 million people, is not subject to external pressures or internal power plays. True power lies with the common people, and they understand when and how to assert their authority.

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