The party has been out of power since 2006. Complaints of little democracy within the party, unpopular political associations, and a widespread belief that the party lacks a clear strategy, have left the BNP in crisis
On its fortieth anniversary today, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the biggest opposition party in Bangladesh, though now out of parliament, is at a crossroads.
The party has been out of power since 2006. Complaints of little democracy within the party, unpopular political associations, and a widespread belief that the party lacks a clear strategy, have left the BNP in crisis.
The BNP’s top leadership is in disarray. Chairperson Khaleda Zia is in prison, serving a five-year sentence in a fraud case, and acting chairperson Tarique Rahman is in self-imposed exile in London.
Observers say the party is at its most vulnerable point since its inception four decades ago.
Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the BNP has been out of parliament on only two occasions – the army interregnum of 2007-08, and following the party’s decision to boycott the 2014 general elections.
The party has been in power thrice – a full term from 1991-96; a brief term following a controversial election that the Awami League boycotted in February 1996; and another full term from 2001-06.
But its fortunes nosedived in 2008 when the BNP managed to win just 30 seats in parliament and the Awami League swept up some 230 seats in the 300-seat house.
Then came the decision by the party to boycott the national polls in 2014. But strategic non-contention is no longer an option.
The Election Commission has said that the party will be deregistered if it sits out the next general election.
Pro-BNP intellectual and former Dhaka University vice-chancellor Emazuddin Ahmed said: “Our chairperson has been in jail for more than six months -- the core challenge is to free her from jail and let her take part in the elections.
“Khaleda’s presence is absolutely necessary for the party to prepare and contest the polls. The party has popular support and needs to stake its claims in the elections and at the ballot box.”
Behind bars, beyond borders
In the last six months, the party has failed to initiate any major movement to free its chairperson, Khaleda Zia, since she landed in jail after a Dhaka court found her guilty in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case on February 8.
Although the run by acting chairperson Tarique Rahman, the situation is not good. BNP Senior Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s eldest son has been away from the country for nearly 10 years.
With several corruption and criminal cases against him, he has been living in London since 2008.
Party insiders say Tarique’s participation in politics has created two centers of power within the party – mother and son.
The BNP turned violent in a two-year movement before and after the 2014 parliamentary elections, demanding the restoration of the caretaker government provision and new elections under a non-partisan government.
Months of street protests that preceded the January 5 election, in which scores of people were killed and hundreds of vehicles destroyed in arson attacks, badly tarnished the party’s image.
The BNP’s inclusion into its alliance of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, a party that sided with Pakistan during the Liberation War in 1971, was already a political liability for the party.
Despite calls to part ways, the BNP retained ties with Jamaat despite knowledge that Jamaat top leaders had been involved in crimes against humanity.
In the 2008 election campaign, the Awami League banked heavily on trials for the war criminals of 1971. This threw the spotlight on the BNP’s ties to Jamaat and hurt its image further.
The Awami League went on to win a landslide victory.
Then, the BNP’s silence as Jamaat-Shibir men took to the streets in a campaign of violence to protest the trial of top Jamaat leaders, eroded public confidence in the party even further.
In hindsight, BNP insiders admit that the alliance with Jamaat cost the party dearly.
BNP founding member Nazmul Huda agreed the Jamaat alliance was a bad choice.
“The alliance with Jamaat meant the BNP’s name was being associated with the blockade, strikes and other violent activities,” Huda told the Dhaka Tribune.
Leaders, activists facing cases
According to data released by party secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir at the beginning of 2018, some 50,074 cases have been filed against 1,191,449 BNP activists since 22 January from 2007.
He claimed that 733 BNP leaders and activists had been killed during this period.
Since most leaders face cases, they rarely venture into the streets for fear of arrest; BNP activities appear limited to air-conditioned drawing rooms.
Party leaders said a level-playing field for the next election would be impossible if the cases were not withdrawn.
Lack of democratic practices inside party
Stakeholders expressed grievances against the lack of democracy and transparency in the party’s inner workings.
They said BNP politics revolved around Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik, a civil rights organisation, said: “Family heads do not want to hand over power to anyone outside the family, even if they are capable. There is no mission, no vision in the party. They are moving forward in a scattered way.”
Nazmul Huda added: “The party has become communal – it has abandoned its ideology of 1978. It has grown detached from the public.”
Elections: No choice for the BNP
Political analysts believe there is no way for the BNP to survive except by taking part in next parliamentary poll -- with or without Khaleda Zia.
Dhaka University law professor Asif Nazrul thinks the BNP needs to pick up small parties, including from the left, to bolster its alliance and recover its public image.
BNP leaders maintain that Khaleda’s incarceration is politically motivated.
Vice-Chairman Selima Rahman claims her party is the only party that can take on the ruling party.
“We will launch a movement, if needed, to free our chairperson. Our target is to go to the polls under a neutral government and evict the party which has been in power ‘illegally.’”