According to Article 123 of the Bangladeshi Constitution, it is mandatory that general elections should be held within ninety days of the dissolution of the National Assembly. This implies that the nation is set to go to polls no later than 24 January 2014. The imminent elections, set in the backdrop of the Shahbagh upsurge, will decide the fate of the arch rivalry between the ruling Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina and the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) of Begum Khalida Zia. It would also have a determining influence on the nature of the Bangladeshi state vis-à-vis the recently throbbing debates on secularism.
The crucial question that emerges here is, how has the Shahbagh movement impacted the prospects of the Awami League in the impending elections? Has the ostensibly non-political Shahbagh Square assumed a political colour by the close association of the Awami League with the upsurge?
Political Demands: Repercussions on the Upcoming Elections
The Shahbagh movement has surpassed its initial demand of death penalty for 1971 war crime convict Abdul Qader Mullah, to include banning the Jamaat-e-Islami party, many of the stalwarts of which have been convicted. Crucially, the upsurge has also called for the banning of economic and social institutions in sectors like banking, education, etc where the Jamaat holds the reigns.
In February 2013, the Parliament amended the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973, which along with enabling an appeal against the war crimes tribunal verdict, also empowered the Awami government to try and punish any organisation for 1971 war crimes. This move could lead to nailing the Jamaat.
Pro-opposition media channels and newspapers are also not spared from the wrath of this movement. Offices of the Daily Amar Desh and Nayadigant, Daily Sangram, and Diganta TV were attacked and vandalised. Interestingly, these media networks had published stories portraying an anti-Islamic picture of the slain blogger and Shahbagh activist Ahmed Rajiv Haider.
The opposition BNP is in an electoral alliance with the Jammat. Despite the fact that in the 2008 elections the Jamaat had won only 2 of the 39 seats, it had contested for the 300 member National Assembly. The socio-economic clout enjoyed by the Jamaat is a cause of concern for the ruling party. Besides, the Awami League’s coalition partner in the 2008 elections, the Jatiya Party, which had won 27 seats of the total 300, has made it clear that it is going to fight the next elections alone. This could possibly weaken the chances of the ruling party to stage a come-back in the era of coalitions. In this light, it is crucial to recall that the Jamaat had pulled off a spectacular performance in the 1991 elections when it had bagged as many as 17 seats. For the Awami League, therefore, politically cashing in on the Shahbagh movement’s thrust is crucial.
The Shahbagh movement’s non-political image, at the same time, has suffered a loss of face because of its entanglement with the Awami League. Despite the fact that the furore at the Shahbagh Square has waned more recently, it is undeniable that the movement assumed a popular character. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the ensuing elections would bear an imprint of this massive upsurge.
The Awami League’s Dilemma
The Shahbagh movement echoes secular-nationalist ideals in its outcry for the strictest punishment for the ‘rajakars’ (colluders of 1971 who resisted Bangladesh’s independence). While the Awami League inherits the legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the secular-nationalist liberation movement, the party has often had to comprise its secularist bent for political and electoral considerations in the overwhelmingly Muslim majority state.
Associating itself with the Shahbagh movement has not entirely been a smooth ride for the Awami League. It has had to maintain a tough balancing act between its secularist proclivity and the rising ride of Islamism in the country. The government had arrested four bloggers on charges of blasphemy in early April this year. This move by the government has been severely criticised by Bangladesh’s liberal civil society circles for mollifying the Islamists.
In this light, the Shahbagh upsurge has opened a Pandora’s Box for the Awami League, wherein the party has to spell out its disposition more clearly than ever before, given that the elections are knocking at the door. Also, for the Awami League, the fecundity of associating itself with the upsurge is yet to be tested on the electoral battleground.
A report by the Indian intelligence organisation RAW, in February 2013, has a dismal forecast for the Awami League in the forthcoming elections for its inconsequential performance while in government, massive corruption charges, etc. Awami’s traditional warmth with global and regional players like the US and India imply that these powers would seek its return. Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP, on the other hand, has linked the Shahbagh upsurge to New Delhi in recent months.
For the Awami League, the fact that it could associate itself with a popular movement of a massive scale has arguably brightened its prospects and given it a fresh lease of life ahead of the elections. However, the electoral arena is laden with many diverse complexities and scoring high on the Shahbagh platform is not a sufficient credential of the Awami League to pull off a second consecutive term.