Bangladesh's political opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Islamist organization Jamaat-e-Islami, has been involved in a nearly yearlong campaign to force the Awami League to step down in favor of a neutral caretaker government ahead of elections. The result has been near constant public unrest, including more frequent clashes between supporters of the Awami League and supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. This has led to a steady increase in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's crackdowns on the opposition. Such unrest surrounding elections is not new for Bangladesh, a country whose history is bloodied by a violent split with Pakistan in the 1970s. Frequent military coups have been part of the political landscape, with an era of military rule that occupied much of the 1990s seeing Bangladesh's army fight to counter the bloody rivalry between the country's two major political parties.
What emerged after the period of military dominance was a system in which a military-backed neutral caretaker government would oversee elections — and a process by which control of the government would alternate between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party each election cycle. The Awami League is presently attempting a first since the end of direct military rule in Bangladesh: It is overseeing elections as the incumbent political party — without overt military participation — and trying to secure back-to-back terms in power.
The Opposition's Limited Choices
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia, has long relied on the organizational prowess of the country's largest Islamist organization, Jamaat-e-Islami, in order to augment its own grassroots electioneering efforts. Though not an Islamist party by the strictest definition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's right-of-center and more conservative policies allow for political alliances with groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami in efforts to gain support from the more conservative and traditional members of Bangladesh's majority Muslim population. But the Awami League has sought to divide the working relationship between its two main political rivals while boosting its credentials as the proponent of an inclusive, secular Bangladeshi nationalist identity. In 2013, a series of war crimes tribunals focused on the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami and its support for Pakistan during Bangladesh's (then East Pakistan's) bid for independence from Islamabad in the 1970s.
The conviction and execution of several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders inspired several strikes and protests, but the turmoil did not necessarily benefit the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Focusing more on its own challenges, such as being banned from participating in the elections, Jamaat-e-Islami has largely been too preoccupied with salvaging its political and social presence to aid Zia's re-election bid. Moreover, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's slow reaction to the tribunals — an attempt to distance the party from Jamaat-e-Islami's opposition to Bangladeshi independence — has also complicated the once strong working relationship between the two parties. The result has been a weakened, divided political opposition that the Awami League has found manageable.
Lacking options, the most effective tools the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies have left are strikes, protests and blockades interspersed with violence, including clashes between supporters of rival parties and arson targeting several textile and garment factories. Despite this friction, Bangladesh has managed unrest and delays — including catastrophic disasters at factories — for a year now. And in spite of the dissent, the country posted increases of 20 percent or higher in production and export of textiles and ready-made garments nearly every month in 2013. The Awami League's ability to maintain economic growth and to preserve the country's vital textiles sector has aided Sheikh Hasina's ability to keep the military from getting directly involved in the political sphere. The Awami League also enjoys the backing of the judiciary, state police and security forces, not to mention the neighboring Indian government, further emboldening the party's decision making and crackdowns on opposition-driven unrest.
The Awami League and the Military Question
With the political opposition largely contained, the Awami League's largest challenge after the elections will come from the country's military establishment. Bangladesh's generals do not wish to revert to a system of direct military rule. The military will intervene, however, in order to prevent large-scale crackdowns by the Awami League against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or in the event of widespread public dissatisfaction and calls for the incumbent government to step down. Thus far, the Awami League has been able to manage public perceptions in Bangladesh's highly divided political theater, and it is unclear how much more violence and protesting the Bangladesh Nationalist Party can incite.
The biggest risk to the Awami League's electoral success will come after the polls, especially if the opposition maintains its boycott of the elections. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Awami League and its Grand Alliance coalition partners would lose an election if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami do not participate. However, the Awami League will likely face challenges to its electoral legitimacy, as well as ongoing unrest and protests kindled by the opposition.
Bangladesh's Constitution mandates that new elections must be held 90 days after parliament is dissolved. However, the Ninth Parliament has yet to be technically dissolved, creating the possibility for a last-minute deal between the government and the opposition. Hasina ended parliamentary business Oct. 25, 2013, ostensibly allowing for elections to be held by Jan. 24. But she avoided formally dissolving the parliament, allowing for a distinct — yet still remote — possibility that the government could reconvene before Jan. 24 and permit fresh elections to be held as late as April if the opposition were willing to negotiate. Such a scenario remains unlikely, however, as it would force the Awami League to waste the momentum it has gained moving into elections and enable the opposition to present a more viable threat, placing the country in extended political disarray.
If elections move forward as planned, Hasina will have to demonstrate to the military that her government is able to manage domestic security as well as the national economy in an attempt to legitimize her government through its rule (in addition to its electoral performance). Whatever the results of the Jan. 5 elections, they will bring little immediate relief to Bangladesh's long-simmering domestic political turmoil. With the possibilities of large-scale unrest or a return to civil war unlikely, and with little incentive for the opposition to abandon its efforts to discredit the ruling party, Bangladesh's political instability is likely to continue throughout early 2014.