B'desh: Divided opposition
Divided parties have knocked together a National United Front of eight parties with Dr. Kamal Hossain as its leader in the absence of Khaleda Zia
General elections in Bangladesh will be held on December 30. The opposition had boycotted the last elections in 2014, only to regret it later. The ruling Awami League won 127 out of 154 seats uncontested and scored a cake-walk victory. This time the opposition is not going to make the same mistake. It is going to take on Sheikh Hasina's party in the absence of its main campaigner, Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Khaleda, a former prime minister, has been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment by a court in a criminal misappropriation case.
Thus, the Awami League leading the 14-party ruling alliance is having a head start. Its main opponent is in jail. The divided opposition parties have hurriedly knocked together a National United Front (NUF) of eight parties on October 13. The Front includes the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami. As the Election Commission has cancelled the registration of Jamaat, it cannot field candidates in its own name. It has to field its men as independents. Among other constituents of the NUF is Islami Oikya Jote of Khelafat Majlish, Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP) and one faction of the Jatiya Samajnatrik Dal (JASAD).
In the absence of Khaleda Zia, NUF chose Dr Kamal Hossain, president of the Gono Forum, as its leader. Dr Hossain, an eminent lawyer, has a chequered past. He defended Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Agartala Conspiracy Case in 1968. But later he gradually drifted away from the Awami League. Soon after taking over the leadership of NUF, Dr Hossain set the tone for the coming electoral battle: "Let us take to the streets. Don't be afraid of the cannons and ammunition of the security forces". It gives an indication of how the opposition intends to fight the polls.
There is another group of splinter parties which have joined hands for the elections in the name of "Jukta Front" (United Front). It is led by A.Q.M. Badruddoza Chowdhury of the Bikalpa Dhara party. One of the constituents of this combination is the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian United Minority Front. Interestingly, the Jukta Front has said that it will fight the elections under the leadership of the Awami League-led 14-part alliance. It has hinted that it may in future join the alliance as a partner. How the Jukta Front will gel with the Awami League and its allies remains to be seen.
NUF has announced a 7-point charter of demands and eleven objectives "to make Bangladesh a Democratic Welfare State." Having given a call to confront the security forces, it has in the same breath also demanded the deployment of the army "with magistracy powers" for a period of ten days prior to the polls up to the formation of the new government.
NUF is already embroiled in a controversy with the Election Commission. It has accused the EC Secretary of "deliberately misguiding" the Commission into issuing a ban on gatherings and processions by nomination seekers in front of the party office. This led to a recent clash. NUF has branded the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner as an agent of the ruling Awami League.
On their part, intellectuals sympathetic to the Awami League have asked NUF leader, Dr Kamal Hossain, to explain how, with his long background, he could join hands with the BNP and the Jamaat. They have blamed Dr Hossain for giving respectability to the discredited Jamaat by taking it as a constituent of NUF.
The Awami League has already warned the Hindu minority that a return to power of the BNP and Jamaat will pose a threat to them. The League general secretary Obaidul Qader recently told a gathering of the Hindus: "Do you remember how many Hindu women were horrendously raped by these barbaric forces? How they persecuted innocent people and set fire to their homes?" To be sure, the minority community knows it well.
The main challenge that the Awami League faces actually comes from within. Aspiring politicians in the party are scrambling to get the party ticket or nomination. It leads to factional feuds. Among the aspirants, there are many who have either no political experience or a clean image or are even well known to the people. The fight for 'tickets' has already led to clashes within the party at some places.
The opposition, on its part, does not have its most seasoned leader, Begum Khaleda Zia to the campaign. Her son Tarique Rahman who is the acting chairman of the BNP is also living in exile in London for many years now. He has been given political asylum there. Tarique was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and fined Taka 20 crore by the Bangladesh High Court in July 2016. He cannot return to his country. As an absentee party chief, he can do little to help his party in the electoral battle. So the BNP had to hand over the leadership of the Jatiya Oikya Jote or National United Front to an 'outsider', Dr Kamal Hossain of Gono Forum.
His leadership qualities will be tested now. His success will depend on his ability to project the image of NUF among the people as an alternative to the Awami League and his skill to hold together the fractious constituents of his ragtag coalition and present it as a united body. As things stand now, the Awami League is set to return to power for the third time in a row.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)