A new politics of non-violence and progress?
Whether we like it or not, election season in Bangladesh has already begun. Preparations are in full swing for the general elections, scheduled to be held in December, even as BNP continues negotiations with United Front and Gono Forum, to forge a greater alliance.
The ruling Awami League has so far welcomed the coalition of Badruddoza Chowdhury, Kamal Hossain, ASM Abdur Rab, Mahmudur Rahman Manna, and other leaders, but believes that they will not pose any threat for the AL in the politics of vote.
The only thing they fear is an alliance between United Front and BNP, which they think will send a strong message to the international community. However, AL prognostics may be wrongheaded if they think that the United Front cannot post a threat in and of itself to the current AL hegemony.
As history shows, new coalitions often win unexpectedly, and uproot existing electoral hegemons from power.
I say this because the brand of Jukta Front, or United Front, already has a rich historical legacy in Bangladeshi politics. In the 1954 East Bengal Legislative Assembly Elections, United Front was an alliance of the opposition parties that contested seats and achieved a comprehensive victory for the alliance or front.
AL should know about this, because they were a part of this broad-based alliance that defeated the strong ruling party. Therefore, it is foolhardy for the Bangladeshi rulers to now forget what history has taught.
Even if we don’t look back to our own history that far back, we can look at the history of our neighbouring state India, where an amalgam of political parties titled the Janata Party won the 1977 general election, and defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress. The parties came together in opposition of the Emergency that was imposed between 1975 and 1977. In the aftermath, Janata leader Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress prime minister in independent India’s history.
Looking at the history of the emergency era activities of then-ruling Congress, we could find multiple parallels with the current ruling regime in Bangladesh. The Indian Emergency bestowed upon their PM the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. For much of the Emergency, most of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored.
We have seen many of those practices in post-2014 Bangladesh as well. Various TV channels were closed down, newspapers were silenced, and journalists were attacked. Many opposition activists were reportedly imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. The anti-drug drive even claimed the lives of ruling party activists and politicos. Non-violent student movements were suppressed as well, with the most recent examples being the quota movement and the road safety protests.
As such, it is not a far-fetched idea to say that the AL has ruled with a de facto iron fist since the 2014 election. Therefore, it is possible that the anti-incumbency wave that we often observe in South Asian politics would float the United Front towards victory.
Now let me expand upon the victory. Even if United Front fails to forge an alliance with BNP in the end, it can probably win 10 to 15 urban seats because of its big name leaders. That will make it difficult for the two big parties to win an outright majority, thus triggering a process that may end in a hung parliament where the parties must forge a coalition to form a minority government.
Even if AL ends up leading that government, it will be much more restrained in its politics and governance, and thus the core driving force of the United Front will have seen a victory of sorts.
So far as the United Front wants a new politics of non-violence and progress, it should not be afraid to contest the elections in its own merit. Even if BNP fails to forge an alliance with them, the United Front should target urban seats and make sure that neither of the major parties wins an outright majority.
That is how the United Front can end up in a coalition government and the two-party hegemony can be brought to an end for the time being.
Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor-at-large of Muktiforum.