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The final stretch

  • Published at 06:36 pm November 19th, 2013
The final stretch

Most commentaries on the prevailing situation in Bangladesh seem to think that if only good will would prevail, everything would be fine. We are left with a feeling of despondency and incomprehension at the ill will that seems to rule.

The situation is actually much more interesting than that. It is not about ill will, it is about power. And one must admit that the government has played the game in a most clever manner. They have managed to make the main opposition paint itself into a corner with its inflexible demand for a caretaker government.

And the opposition has no power to back the demand. The government simply points to the constitution and court rulings, or to other democracies for that matter, and dismisses the opposition’s complaints.

The BNP’s threat of boycott is not really all that threatening any more. The government’s hold over the police, RAB and the army is good and has been strengthened over the last months and years. Any violent hartal protest can be dealt with as a law and order problem, which the government has shown already to be their preferred way.

Besides, the BNP’s organisational backbone never matched that of the Awami League and has been further weakened by months of hartals and arrests. Even Khaleda Zia complained about poor attendance in Dhaka, and apart from individual incidents of violence and death the record outside of Dhaka, is not particularly convincing either.

The difference between 1996 or even 2006 and now is huge. The opposition now is severely weakened and poses no particular threat to the government or any election. Hartals are a nuisance to the government, but not more than that.

Post-poll hartals will be dealt with by the police and will eventually prove their inefficiency. There are businessmen in the BNP as well, and they too will want to return to normal economic life.

The Awami League, on the other hand, has everything to win. They will win the election hands-down if it is boycotted by the BNP. As in many countries, voters tend to prefer an MP with access to power rather than someone righteous yet ineffectual.  

AL candidates will have a huge advantage. Jatiyo Party, the communists, and some others will probably take part in the polls and form an opposition. Power is a great attraction. The Awami League will be able to mobilise about 40-50% of the voters by itself and the other contenders will mobilise another 10-15%.

With more than a 50% voter turnout, the election would be considered legitimate and would not meet with serious protests from foreign donors or civil society. The Awami League would have won and the BNP would be broken. The Awami League will naturally be grateful to the participating opposition, and will not be disinclined to share the boons.

These simple mechanisms are something BNP leaders understand well, and the clever ones are holding themselves back to avoid arrest. They do not wish to risk being chased by court cases when, and if, there is an election, or to be in the bad books of the next government.

As the BNP leadership fully knows, many are contemplating jumping ship and joining the Awami League-run election in January as independents or as candidates of another party.

The BNP’s only real chance now is to back down in the interest of the people (or however these phrases go) and despite misgivings take part in the election under Sheikh Hasina. If they do, there is a fair chance of winning a good number of seats, quite possibly even a majority.

The government will suffer from the incumbency factor that makes it difficult to be re-elected, especially if the opposition is seen to be strong. And the country is full of BNP workers and activists eager to spend their energies more fruitfully than enforcing unpopular hartals.

If the BNP does not go to the polls, Bangladesh may well be facing a tectonic shift in its political life.

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