BNP becomes Muslim League. Really?
Only free and fair elections can judge whether the BNP is really facing elimination or if the party was ‘forced’ to experience humiliation in recent polls
So, in terms of its latest election performance, it's easy to jump to a conclusion that BNP is facing elimination from politics and is set to experience a similar fate to that of the Muslim League, as has been predicted by at least two ministers of the Awami League-led government two years back. But the all-important question is: Really?
Take the latest municipality polls, for example, to briefly analyse the party's electoral performance.
As the fifth phase of municipality polls concluded on Sunday, the sum of the outcome is: AL took 183 mayoral posts while BNP bagged only 10 out of 233 posts up for grabs in the staggered election since December.
The AL's win looks bigger if the performance of its dissidents, who won 32 mayoral posts by contesting the polls in defiance of the party high command's decision, is taken into account. Even the AL dissidents score is three-fold higher than the BNP.
The poor show by the BNP candidates however is not a surprise.
The municipality polls consistently recorded a similar story at every phase: violence, intimidation of opponents and voters, and capture of polling stations to manipulate the election outcomes.
Media reports point fingers at the ruling party's local leaders and activists. The local administration engaged in election duties in most cases appeared as mere eye-witnesses to the show—a tendency developed after the 2014 parliamentary elections boycotted by BNP and some other parties.
As the EC from the first phase of the polls in December overlooked the anomalies, the other phases followed suit. So it was easily predicted after the first phase of the election that the ruling party would grab a landslide victory in the municipality polls. And it happened eventually.
Another electoral debacle the BNP had to experience in the Chattogram City Corporation election - held at the end of January after the conclusion of first and second phases municipality polls - was also marred by widespread electoral anomalies.
In the port city, BNP's mayoral candidate suffered a humiliating defeat to his rival AL candidate. And the party failed to secure even a single councillor post. All 55 posts were bagged by ruling party local leaders.
Do all the signs indicate an elimination of BNP from politics as the Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader predicted in October 2018, one and half months before the last parliamentary election?
BNP is becoming irrelevant just like Muslim League, said Quader, also general secretary of the ruling party. His forecast was reflected in the party's performance in the general election, as it had to suffer a humiliating defeat, bagging only five parliamentary seats out of 300. The fairness of the election has also been largely questioned.
A day after the election, then Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu reiterated the same: "lack of confidence of the workers in the BNP has led to its election rout and it is going to face the same fate as the Muslim League."
The 2018 general election result was just the beginning of the ongoing poor show of the BNP that boycotted the 2014 election.
A brief note on the rise and fall of the Muslim League.
Established in December 1906, the Muslim League was instrumental in creating public opinion in favour of Muslim nationalism and finally in achieving Pakistan in 1947. But within two years of achieving independence, the party began to lose popular support.
The reasons for the decline in popularity - as listed by Banglapedia - were a series of labour strikes, communal riots, steep decline in the law and order situation, the agrarian uprising in some districts, police uprising, soaring prices of essentials, the language issue and numerous other problems of the new state.
As people's high expectations were shattered, they looked for alternative leadership, which was readily provided by the Awami Muslim League of Maulana Bhasani and Krishak Sramik Party of AK Fazlul Huq. These two parties including some other small parties and formed an electoral alliance—United Front—and in the elections in 1954 achieved a landslide win capturing 223 seats, whereas the Muslim League was able to win only 8. The humiliating defeat put the last nail in the coffin of the Muslim League.
Like the Muslim League, BNP has also enjoyed popular support in Bangladesh politics with its own political agenda and issues. The party formed the government twice by defeating its rival AL after the fall of the autocratic regime led by Ershad in 1990. The party won the elections held under the non-partisan caretaker governments in 1991 and 2001. In contrast, the AL won landslides in the last two consecutive parliamentary polls held in 2014 and 2018 when the party was in power.
BNP's entire leadership from top to bottom gathered bitter experiences in past years, since 2013, after the party took to the streets to force the government to restore the non-partisan caretaker government. But it failed to realize that demand. This failure resulted in them launching the agitation to resist the 2014 parliamentary election. That effort also failed. But, the street agitation which turned violent invited a web of cases for the leaders; many of them were detained and later freed on bails. The party chief has been sentenced to jail on corruption cases. In summary, the party is in a fix.
Yet, it's difficult to jump to a conclusion that the last parliamentary election held in December 2018 put the last nail in the coffin of BNP's politics though BNP is nowhere with a strong presence - neither in parliament nor in local government bodies.
There is a qualitative difference in the comparison between Muslim League and BNP.
Fairness of the 1954 election in which Muslim League experienced elimination was never questioned. People were free to cast votes. Incidents of intimidation of voters and opponent candidates, capture of polling stations and stuffing of ballot boxes were beyond the wildest imagination.
What's the situation now?
Take the performance of the Election Commission in the latest municipality polls. It was responsible for leading the election administration to ensure a free and fair electoral battle. Critics may not give the EC something more than a big Zero because of its ostrich-like attitude towards widespread election irregularities, allegedly by ruling party men, at the grassroots level.
The previous elections, including the last parliamentary one in which BNP's performance was at its lowest ebb, were not free of manipulation and anomalies.
Therefore, the underlying message of the scores bagged by BNP, and the EC in the latest municipality polls, appears to be more important to study than the landslide win captured by AL candidates.
And only free and fair elections, if held, can judge whether the BNP is really facing elimination or if the party was forced to experience humiliation in recent polls.
Shakhawat Liton is the Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard