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Once in Power, Now In Despair. What’s Wrong With BNP?

Once in Power, Now In Despair. What’s Wrong With BNP?

Through the January 7, 2024, election, Awami League has swept the polls with few voters mandate amid oppositions’ boycott and vote rigging claims.

Bangladesh walks ahead into a one party state with virtually no opposition party in the parliament.

With this triumph, Sheikh Hasina managed to solidify her grip on power for the fourth consecutive terms but Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), main opposition party of the country, continued to lose one after another game.

BNP and its allies boycotted this election and waged an all-out movement to oust Sheikh Hasina government demanding a non-partisan caretaker government.

The party launched its non-cooperation campaign on December 20, following months of protests, and asked people to boycott the poll. It also appealed to people to stop paying taxes, bills, and bank deposits.

But no weapon managed to hit its aims. BNP also lost in political games with Awami League in 2018 when BNP secured only 7 seats in 11th general elections and in 2014 when BNP boycotted the polls.

Now the party is crumbling to survive. Its senior leaders are either in jail or in hiding and the grassroots activists don’t know what to do now.

So, What's Wrong With the BNP?

Today, there is virtually little or no hope for the BNP to achieve its goal- unseat the government and restore democracy. 

This is for some main reason.

Losing the public’s support

In the past decade, the BNP has faced a severe erosion of popular support. The party, once a formidable force, is grappling with a series of setbacks that have left it weakened and embroiled in controversy.

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia is now unfit for politics as she is severely ill and stands discredited in corruption charges. Meanwhile, her son and the party's Acting Chairman, Tarique Rahman, has been in self-imposed exile in London for over a decade. These leadership absences have created a leadership vacuum, leaving the party in disarray.

The party staunchly refutes any allegations of wrongdoing, asserting that all charges are politically motivated. Despite these denials, the BNP has witnessed a substantial decline in its support base, as public confidence wanes in the face of mounting accusations. 

As the party struggles to navigate these challenges, it is clear that the BNP is at a crossroads, attempting to maintain relevance while grappling with the shadows of its troubled past.

After their 2008 election loss, the BNP chose to boycott the 2014 elections, predicting another defeat. Insisting on a 'caretaker government,' they stirred unrest with violent protests, shutdowns, strikes, and anti-election campaigns.

The BNP's street violence in 2014 led to 153 deaths, causing disruptions and economic setbacks. Despite opposition efforts and international mobilization, the election proceeded with opposition violence on voting day.

In the 2018 elections, the BNP secured only 7 seats and accused the government of widespread vote rigging and result manipulation. The election day was marred by violence, resulting in 18 fatalities and over 200 injuries.

This widespread violence and remain out of power for a long time make BNP less popular and weak.

Recently the party saw huge turnout in its countrywide rallies, but the analysts said it might be for people’s dissatisfaction against the government, not true support for the opposition.

Struggling with a fractured body?

The BNP even failed to conduct a general council meeting for the past 14 years, since 2009, despite its constitution mandating such a meeting every three years. 

The party is in a severe operational leadership crisis. Its de facto leader Tarique Rahman ran the party virtually from London, making a growing gap between the party's leadership and its grassroots, local leaders.

These growing gaps and frustration fueled mass exodus of BNP leaders and narrowing the hopes of welcoming youths in the party.

More than 30 former BNP MPs, including 15 central leaders contested in the polls defying BNP’s stance of non-participation.

And almost all of the remaining loyal leaders of the party including its secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir were arrested or accused in scores of cases.

So, these crises make BNP more dysfunctional as Abraham Lincoln, once quoted, “A house divided cannot stand”

Failing to remain relevant

The BNP has failed to integrate itself into influential public mobilisations in the last few years. 

In 2013, during the Shahbag protests demanding adherence to secular principles, and the subsequent Hefazat-e Islam counterprotest, the BNP failed to actively engage in the national discourse. The Shahbag youth kept the party at a distance, and Hefazat, with its strong coalition, overlooked BNP's support.

Subsequent youth movements in 2015, opposing the VAT on education, advocating for quota reform in government jobs, and addressing road safety, also saw the BNP unable to participate or establish a significant narrative.

Most importantly, the party failed to protest and raised voice for people centric issues like price hike, economic downfall and corruption instead its leaders only talked for state power. This only widens the rift between people and the party.

Lacking a clear agenda

The BNP's bid for power in Bangladesh lacks a compelling vision for change, failing to offer an attractive alternative to the current governance. Unlike other parties with clear ideologies, the BNP appears devoid of a specific vision, lacking a coherent and appealing ideology.

The party's 2018 campaign focused on freeing jailed leader Khaleda Zia and electoral reform, but skepticism persists about its ability to address electoral issues, given past unsuccessful attempts in 2013-2014.

Doubts about the BNP's competence in effecting meaningful change and concerns over its past effectiveness make it less appealing to voters. When compared to the ruling AL, many Bangladeshis question what the BNP could offer that the Awami League isn't already providing.

So, No Chance to Topple Powerful Sheikh Hasina?

Not necessarily.

Bangladesh grapples with industry imbalances, inequality, unemployment, and mounting pollution. The ruling party's support hinges on performance, susceptible to economic downturns or political missteps.

Public backing for the ruling party is cautious, often seen as the best among limited options. With diverse demographics, dissatisfied groups lack specific representation, leading many to vote for the ruling party. However, this unity is fragile, given limited resources, disenchantment with politics, corruption, brain drain, poor infrastructure, and an overwhelming capital city.

While there's potential for an opposition movement to address grievances and challenge the ruling party, the BNP seems unlikely to fill that role. Its failure in the last elections wasn't just due to repression but stemmed from outdated leadership, lack of vision, and failure to present inspiring solutions.

Change is possible in Bangladesh, but the BNP appears an unlikely catalyst for that change. 

What Will BNP Do Now? 

Following the boycott of the 12th parliamentary polls amid widespread protests, the BNP has outlined its next steps, calling for another election under a neutral government. 

In a media briefing at the party chairperson’s office in Dhaka, BNP Standing Committee member Dr. Abdul Moyeen Khan congratulated the people for not casting votes, characterizing the January 7 election as a 'dummy election.'

The party is committed to continuing its movement peacefully until an accountable and elected government is established.

While the BNP previously enforced hartals and blockades alongside mass campaigns, this time, it plans to focus on activities such as distributing leaflets, organizing mass rallies, and conducting marches. 

The protests will also seek the release of all BNP leaders and activists.

BNP media wing member Shairul Kabir Khan mentioned that the party has enforced multiple spells of hartals and blockades since October 28. The new phase of the movement includes a mass campaign demanding the cancellation of the recent election and calling for a fresh vote under a neutral government.

Political observers suggest that the BNP and its allies are starting anew, putting pressure on the government amid questions about the election's acceptance, lower voter turnout, and inconsistent statements by the Election Commission.

A senior BNP leader, speaking anonymously, emphasized the importance of continuing the movement while assessing how the party can create pressure on the government and secure the release of arrested BNP leaders and activists from jail. The final decision on the party's strategy may take a few more days, with the possibility of a new leadership emerging.

Sayed Hasan Al Manzur

Sayed Hasan Al Manzur


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