The party horizon in Bangladesh can be complicated at first sight. The landscape is dominated by parties teaming up for their campaigns to secure a two-thirds majority: The United National Alliance, the Bangladesh National Alliance, the Islamic Democratic Alliance, the Jatiya Oikyafront … (7). Overall, over one hundred and fifty parties are said to exist, each with their own somewhat unique program. The alliances tend to be led by a strong party that offers seats to smaller parties in exchange for cooperation. In the following, we will take a look at some of the major players of the upcoming December 30th elections, and consider what conclusions can be drawn from statements made on social media.
Read here part 1 of this blog series
Who is who?
The Awami League (AL)
The name translates to “People’s League”. Its leader is Sheikh Hasina, who assumed this position in the 1980s. In the previous elections, the party won 234 seats in the parliament (79.14% of votes), and while this result was criticized, it remained uncontested.
The Awami League is historically a strong party, with five of its leaders having assumed the position of President of Bangladesh and four that of Prime Minister. Politically, it believes in the ideology of “Bengali first”, taking an ethnic stance, and officially stands in support of secularism (1).
During its current rule, on the one hand, the AL is said to have successfully furthered its development agenda, and the international community has stated that it is pleased with the way the government is handling the Rohingya crisis (2).
On the other hand, the AL is allegedly pursuing a one-party rule, and has faced allegations of corruption. Potentially the biggest flaw in its previous rule are its harsh measures in securing alleged public safety, which include imposing media bans and applying lethal force (3). Regarding the former, the government has sharpened the restrictions on media with the 2018 “Digital Security Act”, which Human Rights organisations have harshly criticized. Regarding the latter, when the road traffic situation in the capital Dhaka deteriorated culminating in the death of two students in collisions with a bus, a minister’s reaction was interpreted as his dismissal of the deaths. Ultimately, protestors effectively “took control” of Dhaka’s traffic system in a series of protests against not only insufficient infrastructure, but the legitimacy of the government itself (4).
In regards to whether the AL is likely to secure another victory in the elections, an anonymous user on the internet forum Quora wrote:
Awami League is less corrupt than BNP. […] There might be big cases on corruption by [Awami League] government entities, […] but that is in their ancestral gene. […] They might be embezzling money but no party is truly immune to this.” “[The] average Bangladeshi has seen significant improvement in their quality of life due to infrastructure projects and the big push on IT. […] Awami League’s success can also be attributed to natural advancements in technology that they just had the foresight of adopting and the long-term period they have had to rule, learn and adapt.” “[If] we just take a look at the statistics Awami league has improved Bangladesh like no other party and every time BNP comes to power the economic growth percentage of Bangladesh decreases […] (5)
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
The BNP holds the record of being largest opposition in the history of Bangladesh. Due to its boycott of the 2014 elections, the BNP currently holds no seats in the parliament. In the 9th parliamentary election, its popularity had already decreased from holding 193 seats to just 30 (3). Politically, the BNP pursues a nationalist policy under the geographic ideology “Bangladeshi first” (1).
The BNP’s greatest weakness is the crisis surrounding the situation of its leader, Khaleda Zia. Zia served as Prime Minister in 1991-1996, and again from 2001-2006, but due to allegations of corruption was sentenced to jail first for five years, then in a recent appeal case to a increased sentence of ten years (3). The Bangladeshi constitution itself in Article 66(2)(d) states that
A person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of Parliament who has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.
Given the focus on constitutionality of the elections, it thus seems unlikely that Zia will even be eligible to run as a candidate. Further, the violent nature of the boycott of the previous elections does not serve as a basis for a convincing election campaign.
The Jatiya Party (Ershad)
The Jatiya Party is currently represented by 34 seats in the parliament, having claimed 11.31% of the votes in the previous elections. It follows the BNP in its pursuit of “Bangladeshi first”. Its current leader Hussain Muhammed Ershad only assumed the position in 2013, but the party is historically known for having usurped state power in 1982 by a coup d’état, after which it ruled for the brief period of a year.
The JI is a curious case, as its loyalty is said to rotate among political orientations. Although it primarily focuses on promoting “Islam first” (1), it allied with the BNP in 2001 who pursues what is arguably a different ideology (3). In an increasingly Islamised society, the JI could indeed secure a significant amount of seats, but its history imposes serious obstacles: In Bangladesh’s Liberation War on 1971, which until day remains a topic relevant to the country’s identity, members of a militia allied with the JI fought alongside Pakistan and participated in mass atrocities involving mass murder and alleged genocide (3). The JI “continues to claim that it is innocent of any atrocities, and has never apologized”, and most ruling parties seem to have decided to ignore the issue (3).
What is the first prognosis?
Another user on the forum “Quora”, in responding to the question which party is likely to come first in the elections, posted the following statement:
Bangladeshi people have a record of voting alternately for Awami League and BNP since return to democracy in 1990. People don’t trust either party to govern for more than one term without trying to set up a one party state. Based on the above, the BNP is likely to win as it’s their ‘turn’. (6)
However, simply looking at social media might not give a representative portrayal of the situation on the ground. As social scientist Manuel Castells argues, “social media triggers some of the basic human emotions”, namely anger and fear, whereby the average user will primarily come across outrage (4).