Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s strategic advantage at risk

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by David Bergman

It may seen ridiculous to suggest that either of Bangladesh’s main political parties could these days ever be seated on any moral high ground, but in relation to the argument concerning the election time government, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was on it, and now – arguably – isn’t.

The political situation in Bangladesh is fast changing and so months down the line, when everything comes out in the wash, the decision on Saturday by Khaleda Zia to reject the invitation by the prime-minister for dinner at her official residence, and to continue with the hartal, may of course not seem that relevant.

At the large rally on Friday, Khaleda Zia announced that there would be a three day hartal from Sunday onwards unless the prime-minister initiated dialogue to solve the political stalemate around the nature of the election time government.

This seemed a clever move – suggesting that the BNP wanted to find a solution through diplomacy. There was the stick of the hartal, for sure, but one which could easily be averted by a phone call from the Prime Minister.

BNP was on the moral high ground.

And so on Saturday, the prime-minister decided to do what apparently Zia had wanted her to do – phone her up and start the process of dialogue by inviting the opposition leader to a dinner at her official residence on Monday.

You might expect that the BNP would see this as a victory – their demand had forced the prime minister to make a phone call. This might not seem much, but this must be just about the first demand made by the BNP in the last five years which the government has actually accepted, and immediately at that.

However, Bangladesh politicians have reversed clausevitz’s famous aphorism; for them, or for many of them, politics in this country is the continuation of war by other means.

The BNP could not simply just accept the prime minister’s offer – they had to give her and the Awami League a bloody nose first.

For them, this ultimately was what the three day hartal was all about; trying to show the Awami League that the ruling party no longer had control of ‘the streets’ and could not necessarily depend on the law enforcement agencies.

Attacks on Awami Leaguers and their supporters are an intrinsic part of this hartal – to send a message to the ruling party that their time is up; that the opposition is organizationally strong, and can muster people to take on the government if the time was necessary.

And only when this message has been given, would the BNP then sit down for a dialogue – as only then, so their logic went, might the government actually take its demands seriously.

So when faced with the offer of dinner what did Zia do? She refused the dinner until the 60 hour hartal had finished.

Now, the country is back to square one – there has to be another phone call, another offer, and quite reasonably the Awami League prime minister may well question why she should go through another phone call when the opposition leader has failed to keep the terms of her previous public commitment.

Losing the moral high ground is one thing, but how will this affect the BNP’s strategic advantage

For that is what the BNP has at the moment.

The polls universally show that the BNP’s demand for a caretaker government is popular throughout the country even amongst AL supporters, and these same polls also show, with the BNP ten percentage points ahead of the AL, that the opposition party has the most to gain from free and fair elections and the ruling party most to lose.

In addition Western diplomats – as well as apparently those from China – stand much closer to the BNP’s position which is that there should be a neutral interim government, than the position of the AL which is that elections should take place under a party government.

These diplomats also accept that the BNP is right to question whether free and fair elections can take place without, at the very least Hasina standing down from the head of any election-time government – and so for them, it is Hasina who has to move towards the BNP position.

What this all means that is that – unless of course the Awami League comes out with a reasonable offer which the main opposition party rejects – these countries are highly unlikely to send election observers to any election in which the BNP does not participate, and will not recognize the result of any Awami League victory.

So, the BNP has the support of the majority of Bangladeshis as well as that of the international community in seeking concessions from the Awami League government. It is on the right side of this particular argument, and assuming that it is actually willing to negotiate with the ruling party, it will either win the concessions or, if it doesn’t, it will win the support of the international community if the AL tries to conduct the election alone.

This is a strong position to be in. Clearly there remain uncertainties – the role of India, for example, as a counter to the western countries. But nonetheless, the  BNP is well placed.

But this can so easily be lost.

Violence, strategically instigated by the opposition, will result in it losing support from the international community who will increasingly listen to the siren voices of the Awami League that are tirelessly telling diplomats that the BNP/Jamaat are a dangerous political alternative.

Whilst arguments about the nature of the next BNP government are of course separate from those about an election time government, they will inevitably impact upon how willing the diplomatic community would be in the future to question the legitimacy of elections under an Awami League government in which the BNP does not participate.

In addition, hartals and violence will not help the BNP sustain its popularity in the country.

Hartals are very unpopular; in a January 2013 Nielsen/Democracy International poll, over 90 percent of people viewed them as ‘bad.’ And violence perpetrated by the BNP/Jamaat will only tend to feed into the Awami League’s rhetoric of what people have to fear from the opposition winning the election.

Of course in the Bangladesh political activist’s mindset – where politics is just another form of war – there is a belief that people will only support the party if it is seen as a victor. They do not subscribe to the view that violence will necessary make them unpopular – giving the govt a bit a beating in their eyes only adds to their popularity.

If the BNP do allow themselves to be seduced by these arguments, they will however see their strategic advantage soon disappearing.

And that is not good for those who want to see a free and fair elections under some kind of government acceptable to both parties.

The BNP should put all their effort into dialogue and forcing, through legitimate political action, a change in the AL’s position on the election time government.

Hartals and political violence are a dead end – and only add to the risk of the possibility of the army stepping in.

And if that were to happen all bets are off as to which party will come out better the other end.