After the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s failure to derail the Awami League’s campaign in the 12th general election, the party’s activists and leaders are staring at a future fraught with uncertainty and confusion.
As the BNP carries out assessments of its tactics and why its moves failed, supporters and activists are questioning when their protest movement will end.
The BNP’s woes have been apparent for a long time. The forestalling of the 2007 election, a state of emergency and two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker government led up to the 2008 polls which saw a landslide win for the Awami League.
The BNP has boycotted two of the three general elections since. The 2018 polls – the only ones it took part in – saw it suffer a historic defeat.
In 2014 and 2024, the party boycotted the polls and attempted to stop them from taking place. Both times it was unsuccessful. Since then, several senior leaders have described the decision to boycott the 10th parliamentary polls in 2014 as a ‘big mistake’.
BNP Vice Chairman M Hafizuddin Ahmed openly advised the BNP to take part in the election this time. Another leader, Vice Chairman Shahjahan Omar, resigned from the BNP and joined the Awami League to run in the election.
“How many times should I stay out of the election?” he asked.
But the BNP remains adamant about not participating in the elections as long as the Awami League is in power.
This decision remains in place even after the Awami League announced that it will not grant the the boat symbol to candidates for balloting in the city corporations or Upazilas.
But the BNP is persisting with its antigovernment campaign. Some leaders continue to call their boycott movement a success in the aftermath of the polls.
Abdul Moyeen Khan, a member of the BNP Standing Committee, said: “No voters went to voting centres even after intense pressure. This is a success of our protests.”
Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, senior joint secretary general of the party, said: “This government must fall. People of all levels in the country believe that.”
TOP LEADERS BEHIND BARS
Two days after the polls, the BNP sat with those who participated in their campaign to boycott the polls. At the meeting, the party reiterated that it would remain adamant about its demand for the Awami League’s resignation.
Three weeks later, the BNP held “black flag rallies” for two days across districts and metropolitan areas to push for a series of demands like the cancellation of the result of the 12th parliamentary polls. A similar programme was held on Jan 30, the first day the new parliament sat.
Some BNP leaders who went into hiding after the violence on Oct 28 were seen at these rallies. But a significant portion of the BNP leaders who were arrested before the polls are still behind bars.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Standing Committee Member Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury have secured bail in several cases, but not in the case over the attack on the residence of the chief justice on Oct 28. Many others are still behind bars in different cases.
The verdict against Mirza Abbas, another member of the Standing Committee, in a case over owning illegal property was to be delivered on Jan 24. The day before that, however, the judge decided fresh arguments will be presented in the case.
The BNP’s headquarters, however, were opened after the election on Jan 7. Leaders who had gone into hiding before the polls went to the offices and also began attending rallies. Law enforcers are not arresting them.
“ANOTHER FIVE YEARS?”
Leaders and activists of the BNP from both the capital and beyond are increasingly converging on Naya Paltan every day, driven by the "distress" of their imprisoned colleagues and concerns for the future of their political struggle.
Shahidullah Chowdhury, recently released from incarceration following the elections, journeyed from Tangail’s Mirzapur to Dhaka to share the plight of his still-imprisoned friends.
He said: “Two of my friends are still in jail. I came to the party office to apprise them of the situation. I can’t explain to you how tough it is to stay in prison in this bone chilling cold.”
He spoke about the BNP not having a failsafe plan if their antigovernment campaign did not work out. He also has doubts about how fruitful the campaign will continue to be now that Awami League has emerged as the ruling party once more.
“We will continue campaigning. But where does it end? Our activists ask ‘will this continue for the next five years?’ I don’t have an answer.”
Imran Ahmed, a BNP activist of Dhaka South residing in Old Dhaka, echoed his sentiment. He said: “We aren’t confused. We’ll continue our protests. But we’re still grappling with a question -- how much longer should we go on like this?”
“I believed the government wouldn't be able to hold an election, but it did it anyway in one-sided fashion. A government has also been formed.
"Our leaders are saying we need to prepare for more sacrifice in the streets. We’re ready to do that. I’ve been jailed four times and have been accused in 35 cases. But the question remains - when will this end?”
Sanjida Khatun, a supporter of BNP who works at a commercial bank, said: “We need to thoroughly analyse our weaknesses. I find it positive that the BNP held antigovernment protests over the past year and a half in a peaceful manner. Now the BNP needs to identify it mistakes.”
Rifat Hasnain, a BNP activist from Feni, says announcing programmes now will be of no use.
“I don’t see any hope for change in the government’s bureaucracy, military and civil administration, the Election Commission, or the justice division over the next five years.”
FAILURES OF PREVIOUS CAMPAIGNS
The BNP has repeatedly failed to achieve its goals in its campaigns.
Following the failed attempt to 'prevent' the 10th parliamentary election in 2014, it launched blockades and general strikes from Jan 5, 2015 to oust the government, resulting in widespread violence and petrol bomb attacks.
Despite the collapse of their programme at one stage, the BNP participated in the mayoral election in Dhaka.
In February 2018, ahead of the verdict in the corruption case against party Chairperson Khaleda Zia, there were threats of potential unrest in the country.
Despite this, the BNP leader was jailed for five years in the Zia Orphanage Trust case, where she was convicted of embezzling Tk 21 million in foreign donations for the orphanage trust.
Later that year, the High Court doubled her sentence, and she received an additional seven-year term in the Zia Charitable Trust graft case.
The party has lost interest in appealing the verdict in the Charitable Trust case to the High Court and in seeking an Appellate Division hearing for the Orphanage Trust case.
The septuagenarian former prime minister served her sentence at the old central jail of Dhaka until the government decided to suspend her jail time on medical grounds amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Khaleda was released from prison on Mar 25, 2020, by executive orders and the government has already conditionally extended her time out of jail on several occasions
Her party and family demand that she be allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment but the government has not entertained the idea of her leaving Bangladesh.
While Khaleda was in jail, her son and presumed political heir Tarique Rahman became the acting chairman and de-facto head of the party while residing in the UK.
Even after Khaleda Zia returned home, Tarique still makes decisions for the party.
Tarique, meanwhile, has been sentenced to two years in jail for derogatory remarks about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, seven years in jail in a money laundering case, 10 years in jail in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case, and life imprisonment in the case over the Aug 21 grenade attack.
As he is considered a fugitive, he cannot appeal against his sentences in court.
Before the 12th parliamentary elections, Western countries, especially the United States, backed the BNP, offering hope to its grassroots supporters.
However, no nation supported the BNP's plea for a caretaker government.
After the election, the West shifted to collaborating with the new government and enhancing diplomatic ties with it.
Previously, both the Jatiya Party and the BNP had arranged elections without the participation of the opposition. However, these governments did not finish their terms.
In contrast, the Awami League government completed its tenure in 2014 and conducted fresh elections.
BNP LEADERS CLAIM ‘SUCCESS’
This time, BNP's election strategy diverged from past approaches.
They dissolved the 20-party alliance and initiated a simultaneous movement to try and oust the government.
With the exclusion of BNP's key ally Jamaat-e-Islami’s from the alliance, there was no uncertainty about the participation of other parties.
More than 30 small parties, including the Gonotantra Mancha, 12 parties formerly part of the 20-party alliance and the Jatiyotabadi Samomona Jote, as well as the Ganatantrik Bam Oikya, a leftist political platform, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Bangladesh Labour Party, and the National Democratic Party, a right-wing political party, joined the BNP's movement.
Jamaat, which opposed Bangladesh's independence during the 1971 war, initially kept its distance but later began aligning itself with the BNP on Oct 28.
However, its street presence was not as prominent as it was in 2013 and 2015.
Even after the elections, the BNP announced its intention to continue its protests. According to party leaders, there is "no alternative" to this approach.
A day after the Jan 7 election, the party’s Standing Committee member Abdul Moyeen Khan called the polls ‘one-sided.’
He told bdnews24.com that the party's major success was the low voter turnout.
Moyeen Khan described the scene in Dhaka on Jan 7, mentioning empty roads and highways, little traffic, and few people on the streets, with polling centres mostly empty.
"Another aspect is the unity among BNP leaders, workers, and supporters despite numerous cases, arrests, pressures, and temptations. This unity is BNP's success and accomplishment," Khan added.
Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi expressed confidence in the success of their programme, saying that the government will be compelled to quit.
Speaking to bdnews24.com, Rizvi said that BNP stands united with the people in this movement.
“This movement will signal the government's departure. Every leader, worker, supporter, and dissenting citizen wholeheartedly believes so," he added.
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi and Syed Mahmud Onindo; editing by Shoumik Hassin]