The ruling Awami League is feeling the urge to bring opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the next (12th) parliamentary elections. That's why, the leaders of the ruling party have been ensuring in all formal and informal discussions with diplomats or politicians that a free and fair vote will be organised.

However, the ruling party will not give BNP any space over their demand to hold the elections under a non-party caretaker government.

According to the sources in the policymaking level of the Awami League, the party is strict in its stance to hold the national polls under the government led by Sheikh Hasina this time too. Their target is to remain in power for another term through this election. Achieving that goal would be easier if all the parties participate in the election.

However, if the opposition parties, including the BNP, boycott the elections, then they will try to stop the polls, which may result in political violence. Such a situation increases risk and uncertainty. On the contrary, there is less risk in forming a government in case of participation of all parties in the polls as there will be no question regarding its acceptability.

Diplomats from different countries and international agencies, including the US and the European Union, have held several official and unofficial meetings with the BNP in recent times.

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On condition of anonymity, several Awami League leaders involved with such discussions told Prothom Alo that the diplomats are talking about the expectations of a fair election with the participation of all parties, including BNP. They are not pushing for a neutral or caretaker government like the BNP. Therefore, there should be no objection from the ruling party regarding the participation of BNP in the national polls held under the government led by Sheikh Hasina, they.

The AL leaders also said their party is also showing indication of appreciating the initiatives of the foreign diplomats to bring BNP to the polls, they added.

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Several senior leaders of the Awami League have said that they will keep indirectly the door open for the discussion on BNP’s participation in the Jatiya Sangsad election, to be held under the government led by Sheikh Hasina. In that case, the AL may show flexibility regarding some of the demands of the BNP. BNP’s acting chairman Tarique Rahman is being considered as the main obstacle for such initiatives.

The AL leadership believes that at the moment, Tarique Rahman’s goal is to oust the incumbent government and an election under a neutral government. As a result, the BNP wants to continue the anti-government movement.

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If the BNP remains strict in its stance, the Awami League also, however, has an alternative strategy, including encouraging more BNP leaders to participate in the polls as independent candidates, lodging new cases against the BNP activists, increasing arrests in old cases and so on. Even sending BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia back to prison to put the party under extreme pressure is also in the consideration of the ruling party policymakers.

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Speaking to Prothom Alo, Kazi Zafarullah, presidium member of the Awami League, said, “Awami League as a democratic party wants the participation of all political parties in the upcoming polls. BNP will be welcomed if they come to the polls.”

BNP is the main opposition

Although there are questions regarding the BNP’s organisational strength, Awami League has no doubt that BNP is their main opposition in politics. The people of the country and the foreign allies want participation of all parties in the elections. Senior AL leaders think if BNP boycotts the polls, other political parties may follow the suit in this situation.

They have been saying it will be tough to hold an election like that of 2014 and 2018. Already the people are suffering due to the economic recession and price hike. It is difficult to assume people’s reaction in case of another questionable election.

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Besides, the law enforcement agencies are in somewhat uncomfortable situation due to the US sanctions on seven former officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). On the other hand, the internal dispute within the ruling party before the elections of 2014 was not as severe as now.

BNP has options this time

According to Awami League policymakers, BNP had no other ways than taking part in the last election as boycotting the polls at that time would cancel the registration of the party. This time, the party has no such drawbacks. Therefore, the BNP can stand firm on their decision to boycott the polls.

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The Jatiya Party (JaPa), founded by autocrat HM Ershad, played a vital role in the elections of 2014 and 2018. Although Ershad declared boycotting the polls in 2014, AL could keep the party in the polls with the assistance Raushan Ershad, the wife of HM Ershad, and a large section of the party. Since then, the party has held the title 'opposition in parliament'.

Seeking anonymity, a central Awami League leader said, “Ershad is no more. Raushan Ershad has been sick for a long time. Currently, GM Quader is leading the party and the ruling party has doubts over his political stance. However, AL would negotiate with the JaPa regarding the number of constituencies if BNP takes part in the election.”

Efforts to reduce Tarique’s authority

The policymakers of Awami League and the government believe that considering the activities of the diplomats, fear of lawsuits and attacks, and the keeping morale of their supporters intact, BNP will move away from its demand of the caretaker government and will take part in the next polls. In that case, the acceptance of the government will not be affected highly even if there are questions regarding the polls. The last general election is an example of this.

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However, Tarique Rahman has an immense influence on the grassroots and general party activists. Tarique and his followers will oppose if any discussion regarding taking part in the election under the government led by Sheikh Hasina, came up within the party. Therefore, the Awami League and the government are trying to reduce the influence of Tarique Rahman within the party.

An AL leader said, on condition of anonymity, that through the arrests of BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam and the party's standing committee member Mirza Abbas ahead of their divisional rally in Dhaka on 10 December, the message to BNP was to reduce the authority of Tarique Rahman in the party. A message is constantly being sent at different levels of the BNP that they have no chance of coming to power under the leadership of Tarique Rahman as there is a consensus among the influential quarters in the country and abroad regarding this. Therefore, BNP has to do politics going beyond the influence of Tarique Rahman for the future of the party.

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Speaking to the newspersons on Sunday, law minister Anisul Haque said there was no such condition that Khaleda Zia won’t be able to do in politics during her release on parole.

Some of the Awami League leaders assume that such a statement was given to reduce Tarique’s influence in the party. Khaleda Zia may have to go back to prison if BNP boycotts the polls. The BNP chairperson may insist on participating in elections to avoid imprisonment in this old age and ill health.

AL has an alternative strategy too

Following the BNP MPs resignation from six constituencies, Abdus Sattar Bhuiyan won from Brahmanbaria in the recent by-polls, with the backing of Awami League. By this, the ruling party wanted to convey a message that if BNP decides to boycott the polls there will be conflict within the party and their leaders will take part in the election as independent candidates across the country.

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There is a provision for the independent candidates to submit the signatures of at least 1 per cent of the total voters in the constituency. The AL policymakers are also considering the idea of removing this provision to facilitate the participation of independent candidates.

AL presidium member and deputy leader in parliament, Matia Chowdhury, told Prothom Alo, “It is the duty of a political party to take part in the polls in democracy. The opposition party should be ready for the consequence if they do not accomplish that duty. The Awami League doesn’t want score in an empty field. We hope BNP will participate in the election.”

* The report, originally published in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu