What went wrong with the BNP, Bangladesh’s main opposition party?

The BNP’s defeat in last year’s disputed election cannot be explained solely as a result of government repression.

BNP bangladesh Reuters
File: Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists shout slogans during a rally in Dhaka January 20, 2014 [File:Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

On December 31, 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured her third consecutive term with a landslide victory in Bangladesh’s national election, raising concerns that the south Asian country of some 160 million may be turning into a “one-party state”.

Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League (AL), and its allies won almost all the 300 parliamentary seats contested in its best ever result. The main opposition alliance, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), on the other hand, managed to secure only seven seats. 

The BNP’s disappointing result in last year’s election caused many Bangladesh watchers to question whether the former ruling party, which won four national and two presidential elections since its formation in 1978 but has not been in power since 2006, will ever regain its position as a major political force in the country. 

Today, a BNP resurgence in Bangladesh seems unlikely for three main reasons.

Losing the public’s support

First, the BNP no longer commands popular support. 

The party’s Chairperson Khaleda Zia is in jail for corruption charges and her son and the party’s Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman has been living in exile in London for more than 10 years. In October 2018, a Bangladeshi court also sentenced Tarique to life in prison over a 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina, which killed 24 people and injured many others. Many of the party’s other leaders and prominent supporters are also either in jail, exile or hiding and the rest is trying to keep a low profile. The party categorically denies any wrongdoing by any of its leaders and says all charges are politically motivated. Nevertheless, it has lost a significant number of supporters as a result of these accusations. 

Moreover, in 2013 the BNP, supported by its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, sought to change the election law through general strikes and street protests and announced its intention to boycott the upcoming 2014 general election citing unfair conditions. Sheikh Hasina’s government went ahead with the election despite the boycott and easily won a new term in power. In response, the BNP continued the unrest – buses were burned, bombs were thrown, and major disruptions were caused to public life. This caused the public to turn against the main opposition party. 

In 2018, the BNP agreed to peacefully participate in the general election, yet failed to regain popular support. With most of its leaders and activists either in hiding or in jail, the party was almost invisible during the campaign and on the day of the vote. In spite of the obvious state bias against it, there was no outpouring of public sympathy for the BNP.

This is not to say that the BNP had no chance of winning the election, or at least making substantial gains, if the vote was completely free and fair. However, the public’s apparent disinterest in the injustices facing the BNP and its leaders clearly demonstrated that any gain by the BNP would have been the result of their anger at the incumbent government, not their support for the opposition.

Failing to remain relevant

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

In February 2013, a huge popular protest erupted in Dhaka’s Shahbag district, demanding the Bangladeshi state to abide by the secular principles it was built on. A few months later, the Hifazat-e Islam – a coalition of a dozen or so Islamist organisations – started a counterprotest movement aiming to alter the country’s secular political culture. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets in favour of these two conflicting movements and ignited a major national debate on the very core values and principles of the state.

However, the BNP failed to find its place in this major national conversation. The Shahbag youth kept it at arm’s length, while Hefazat ignored BNP’s support because it was already strong – a coalition of organisations based at more than 25,000 religious schools across Bangladesh.

Since 2015, there have been three more significant youth mobilisations: the “No VAT on Education” movement against a government tax on private university education, the quota reform movement for broader intake to government jobs, and the road safety movement. The BNP was neither able to play a role in any of these protests nor was it able to position itself in the debates. 

Lacking a clear agenda

Third, the BNP lacks a clear agenda. 

In the eyes of the Bangladeshi public, the BNP wants to be in power but offers no explanation as to what exactly it would do – or change – once it forms a government.

It is healthy for a country to have the ruling elite change regularly, but when the main alternative fails to bring an attractive proposition to the table, change for the sake of change becomes a less attractive option for the people. 

Moreover, the BNP does not appear to follow a particular ideology, and this makes it an even less attractive opposition force. While most Bangladeshi political parties and groups are mostly clientelist, they still have a kernel of ideology. Even the ruling AL appears to have a (nationalist) ideology, however malleable, derived from the pre-eminent role it played in the war of liberation. 

The BNP, on the other hand, has not been built on a legacy that it can transform into a coherent and attractive ideology. From the outset, it was a hotchpotch of elements – leftists dissatisfied with the AL’s nationalism, rightists hankering for an Islamist revival, opportunists, and Pakistan-era establishment figures sidelined by the new rulers after Bangladesh’s independence.

The main two campaign pledges of the BNP in the run-up to the 2018 election were to free its jailed leader Khaleda Zia from prison and to reform the election system. Apparently, very few people in Bangladesh care much about Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment. She is a politician, and all politicians are corrupt, seems to be the general sentiment.

As for reforming the electoral system, many believe the BNP has exhausted its chances. Of course, free and fair elections are desirable in the eyes of most voters. Yet following its botched attempts to bring about election reform in 2013-2014, which caused major suffering and disruption, many Bangladeshis believe the BNP is not capable of doing much to fix the country’s problematic election system.

A free and fair election might bring the BNP to power, but for most voters that would only mean giving power to people who have not proven particularly competent in the past. This is why, when faced with a choice between the BNP and the ruling AL, most Bangladeshis ask themselves “What could the BNP do that the Awami League isn’t already doing?” 

The AL is not invincible

So, now what? The AL has successfully established a firm grip on the state and destabilised the traditional two-party structure of Bangladeshi politics. Moreover, the country is doing quite well on a range of indexes, including economic growth and human development. Has the opposition no chance of regaining the favour of the public and topple the all-powerful AL?

Not necessarily.

Bangladesh is still a country with a lopsided industry, growing inequality, high figures of unemployment or partial employment, a homespun “terrorist” threat, a refugee crisis, a border problem, and a mounting pollution issue. 

There is reason to believe the support of the forces that really matter – the army, bureaucracy, police and the “deep state” – for the ruling party is conditional on its successful performance. An economic hiccup or a major political faux-pas can easily cause Sheikh Hasina’s party to fall out of favour and lose its grip on power.

Moreover, the public’s support for the ruling party is equally apprehensive. Most voters choose the AL not because they believe the party represents all their beliefs and offers solutions to all their grievances, but because they view the ruling party as the best of a bad bunch. 

Bangladesh is a huge country with a 160 million-strong population. It has leftists, conservatives, city dwellers and millions living in rural areas. There are nationalists, socialists, Islamists and minorities. There are people concerned with environmental problems, there are women’s rights activists. None of these groups has specific political representation in the country at this point in time – as a result, many of them vote for the AL.

Such dissipate orientations cannot for long be kept under one umbrella, especially as state resources are limited. There is also a general disenchantment with the political class, a lack of state legitimacy, huge corruption, a brain-drain, poor infrastructure, and a capital city weighed down by its own enormity.

There is ample chance for an opposition movement to underline the shortcomings of the ruling party, offer some real solutions to the deep-rooted grievances of the public, and carve itself an influential space in Bangladesh’s electoral map or even topple the government – despite the ruling party’s relentless grip on power. A youthful, focused and goal-oriented opposition force, using imagination and political skill, can easily mobilise the unrepresented but politically sensitive masses in Bangladesh and facilitate change. 

However, the BNP is unlikely to be that opposition force. 

The main opposition party has not been unsuccessful in last year’s elections only because it was repressed and silenced by the incumbent government. It failed because of its old and unimaginative leadership, its inability to present an inspiring agenda and carve out a new path for the country. 

There still is a chance for change in Bangladesh – but it is unlikely to be facilitated by the BNP.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.