If there is one thing most political observers, or 'politicos' in Bangladesh can agree on about 2022, it would have to be that it was the year a degree of competition seemed to return to invigorate the country's body politic. This can be mostly attributed to the return of the BNP as a force to reckon with, following almost a decade during which they were mostly moribund, at times bedraggled, and for long stretches even invisible.
The last time they truly stood as a genuine alternative to the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League must have been 2013, till about the closing days of that year, when the rank-and-file failed to mobilise even as their chairperson, the then-leader of the opposition in parliament, Begum Khaleda Zia, became confined to her home.
In many ways, that helplessness on the part of the senior leadership apart from Zia to do anything to relieve her marked an episode that may yet stand out in the pages of history as the beginning of the end for the party founded by her late husband, ex-president Ziaur Rahman.
No such problems this time, almost ten years later, as the party faithful turned out in droves on each stop of a 10-leg programme of divisional rallies, culminating in a hugely successful rally in capital Dhaka, after overcoming all sorts of obstacles and even the arrest of its two most senior active leaders barely 24 hours earlier. Before he got picked up from his Uttara residence in the small hours of December 9, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the party's embattled general secretary, had said in an interview to our sister newsagency UNB, that the United States' move a year earlier to impose sanctions against elite force RAB and some of its current as well as former officers, including the just-retired Inspector General of Police, Benzir Ahmed, had indeed acted as a fillip to the party.
It showed them they were not alone in the fight against the behemoth that ruling parties in Bangladesh invariably become. The sanctions of course were imposed in the closing weeks of 2021, but then throughout 2022, a clutch of foreign missions stationed in Dhaka seemed to take up their cause, although not directly of course. As they positioned themselves once again as a party to be taken seriously with a nationwide support base, we witnessed the AL appearing to be pushed, to be challenged, for the first time in almost a decade as well. Now the question on everyone's lips, was how would it respond?
The arrests of Mirza Fakhrul and Mirza Abbas perhaps would have communicated a sense of nervousness on the part of the ruling party, carrying as it does all the baggage that inevitably piles up in the course of a 14-year unbroken spell in power. A certain detachment, a sense of complacency, and plenty of intra-party feuding can be hard to shake off. With the BNP out of the picture, much of what constituted political competition over the last decade or so consisted of AL v AL, as a growing army of 'rebel candidates' chose to defy the chain of command in local elections, and these fraternal battles descended into fatal violence. Think of the Upazila Parishad elections of 2016, that despite the absence of the BNP, ended up as the most violent in the country's history.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimated that of some 263 incidents of violence surrounding those elections, 70 involved the Awami League, while the BNP was involved in just thirteen (even though they were not participating in the election). Only 6 of these events were clashes between the two main parties, AL and BNP, while 21 events were clashes between members of the ruling AL. A total of 101 people were killed in election-related violence.
None of it seemed to matter much in the eventual power play for control of the state. Not while the BNP appeared down and pretty much out of it. But when the BNP seemed to gain a new lease of life in the second half of 2022, a year out from the next parliamentary elections falling due, the AL knew it had to come up with a more serious response than merely reverting to suppressing the opposition through the use of state agencies. It had to reinvigorate itself.
Not your usual Council
There may be few better opportunities for the AL leadership to get that message across to its rank and file, than the party's 22nd National Council, which is set to be held over the weekend, on Saturday (Dec. 24). AL general secretary Obaidul Quader on Thursday visited the venue at the historic Suhrawardy Udyan in the capital as all the preparations have already completed to smoothly hold the council.
Awami League President and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the council at 3pm. The wave of anticipation over the council of the country's oldest political party which is committed to introduce diversified and revitalised leadership at different ranks is comparatively higher this time. In light of Sheikh Hasina's recent calls to clean one's own house, there has been a move to reconstitute the party from the grassroots level, aiming to enhance its organisational strength.
According to party sources, the ruling party so far could hold 50 percent of its district level councils. Till December 13, councils of 30 districts, including city and district levels, were held, out of 64. The party took the reconstitution move after some leaders of its associated bodies got involved in making money through unlawful and unethical means, including running casinos, came to the fore.
It formed eight committees for eight divisions, comprising members from presidium members, Advisory Council and AL Central Working Committee (ALCWC), to lead the refurbishing of the party as well as recruiting fresh blood in leadership.
As per the announcement, the national council of Bangladesh Krishak League was held on November 6 while that of Awami Sramik League on November 9, Bangladesh Awami Swechchhasebak League on November 16 and that of Bangladesh Awami Jubo League was held on November 23.
Besides, the council of Awami Matsyajibi League was held on November 29 at the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh. It also completed the councils of some important units - Dhaka South City and North City. The assigned leaders made countrywide organisational tours to strengthen the party and resolve intra-party disputes ahead of the triennial national council.
Senior leaders who will get posts in the government will not be included in the vital posts of the party, said party sources. They also hinted that those who are inactive in the field will not find their names in any post in the party.
On December 12, at an extended meeting of Awami League Dhaka North unit, party's general secretary Obaidul Quader expressed satisfaction that they have "almost" completed the council of the different units without any big clash despite being a ruling party, which increases competition for posts.
He said the revamped Awami League is now "stronger, smarter and more organised. "It means that all welcomed our initiative to reconstruct the party from top to bottom," he added.
Awami League is focusing on youth and "smart" leadership - with the determination to achieve its 'Smart Bangladesh' goal - by confronting conspiracies at home and abroad. Some senior leaders said the 22nd National Council of Awami League is going to present a smart, organised and acceptable leadership to face the imminent challenges.
Awami League will conclude its National Council at the historic Suhrawardy Udyan on December 24. The main theme of this year's council is: "Development journey under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina with the determination to build a developed, prosperous and smart Bangladesh of Bangabandhu's dream".
According to party sources, the council usually goes on for two days but this time, it will be held for a day. Keeping in mind the global recession, the party has taken this initiative of curtailing the programme. The budget of the 21st AL National Council was Tk 3.43 crore while the budget for this year's council is a reduced Tk 3.13 crore.
About 7,000 councillors and lakhs of delegates will participate in this year's National Council. The party started distributing councillor and delegate cards from Wednesday.
The first session will begin on December 24 at 10:30 am. Leaders and activists will come to Suhrawardy Udyan early in the morning. There will be a break for lunch and prayers.
Party sources said that Awami League will form its executive committee, taking into consideration the 12th national election scheduled for early 2024. Those who will assume leadership will confront all domestic and foreign conspiracies and work to implement the election manifesto of Awami League.
Besides, the leaders will also work to highlight the development and achievements of the government to the countrymen. Awami League intends to go for leaders from among honest, courageous, idealistic and tested activists.
Advocate Jahangir Kabir Nanak, a member of the presiding committee of the party, said that this council is committed to ensuring a smart Bangladesh by 2041. Among the former leaders of Chhatra League, those who have demonstrated maturity in politics and are loyal to the party can be chosen. He also said the party will give efforts to fulfil the quota of women in leadership.
Saying that Awami League is a "smart party", Joint General Secretary and Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said the ruling party is always "the first to think what needs to be done to advance the nation."
"Awami League has established Digital Bangladesh. Now, it will also ensure Smart Bangladesh. Our country lagged behind for decades during the first, second and third industrial revolutions, but now we are not behind in the fourth industrial revolution under the leadership of Bangabandhu's daughter Sheikh Hasina," he also said.
Joint General Secretary of Awami League, AFM Bahauddin Nasim, said that the 12th national election will be held after one year. "Awami League will have a strong leadership, consisting the young and elderly, who can work for the party along with Sheikh Hasina to build a smart Bangladesh," he said.
Awami League General Secretary and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader told UNB that every council brings new faces to lead the party. This trend will continue in this council as well, he said.
Ahead of the 22nd National Council, the last executive meeting of the current committee was held at Ganabhaban, the official residence of party president and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on Thursday. Obaidul Quader requested the invited members of the central executive committee of Awami League to attend the meeting in accordance with the health protection rules.
A spectacular stage is being built in the shape of a boat at Suhrawardy Udyan. This will include the development and progress of the current government. The stage is 80 feet long and 44 feet wide.
There will be five gates for entry. One of these is a VIP gate, while the other four are for councillors. The gates will be opened for councillors and delegates from 7am.
A united Opposition?
At its climatic Dhaka rally on December 10, the BNP had issued an interesting rallying cry that sought to pull in other, like-minded parties opposed to the Awami League under an umbrella it offered to hold. As part of that agenda, it had declared December 24 as the date for its next nationwide field-level programme aimed at 'ousting the government', at which it urged the other parties to join in.
Eventually, once it was pointed out to them that the 24th was booked for the AL to hold its Council, the party agreed to back out and set a new date for that. Meanwhile though, it has been busy in its efforts to woo some of the other smaller parties into a united front against the incumbents, and this week we saw the first concrete evidence that it was getting somewhere with those efforts, as it unveiled a 27-point charter to reform the 'structure of the state' in Bangladesh, that it aims to implement in conjunction with a coalition of 12 parties that are committed to the overthrow of the present regime.
With Mirza Fakhrul still languishing in jail, BNP standing committee member Khandakar Mosharraf Hossain presented the propositions titled "A Brief Outline of The Structural Reforms of the State" at a hotel in the capital on Monday (Dec. 19).
The party said they have prepared the outline in line with the '19- Points' of late president Ziaur Rahman and the more recent 'Vision- 2030' that was announced by Khaleda Zia prior to the 2018 election.
"The current authoritarian government has destroyed the state structure of Bangladesh. The state needs to be repaired and rebuilt. After winning a free, fair, impartial, acceptable and participatory election with the aim of returning the country's ownership to its people, national consensus for public welfare will be established by the political parties participating in the movement to oust the current fascist government,'"Mosharraf said.
He said that reforms would be carried out through a national government while the proposed 'national government' would be formed comprising all the political parties currently participating in the 'anti-government democratic movement'.
The 27-point draft reforms are as follows:
A 'Constitution Reform Commission' will be set up to repeal/amend all unreasonable, controversial and undemocratic constitutional amendments; an inclusive 'Rainbow Nation' will be established based on Bangladeshi nationalism, as opposed to the politics of vengeance.
A 'National Reconciliation Commission' will be formed in this regard; an election-time non-party caretaker government system will be introduced; the executive power of the president, the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers will be balanced; no one shall serve as the president and the prime minister for more than two consecutive terms.
In addition to the existing legislative system, an 'upper house of the legislature' will be established to run the state with expertise; the issue of amendment to Article 70 of the constitution will be examined, in order to ensure the scope for the members of the parliament to express independent opinions in the parliament.
The existing 'Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Appointment Act, 2022' will be amended and all constitutional, statutory and public institutions will be reconstituted.
Effective independence of the judiciary will be ensured while an 'Administrative Reforms Commission' shall be set up for restructuring the administration.
A 'Media Commission' will be set up for comprehensive reforms. There will be no compromise on corruption, a white paper will be published on investigating money laundering and corruption and an 'Ombudsman' will be appointed as stipulated in the constitution.
The rule of law will be established at all levels and human rights will be implemented as per the Universal Human Rights Charter. An 'Economic Reform Commission', consisting of experts, will be constituted.
Every individual will enjoy the right to perform respective religious activities based on the principle that religions belong to respective individuals, the state belongs to all.
Fair wages of the working class will be ensured in keeping with inflation. All black laws, including the indemnity law for the power, energy and mineral sector, will be repealed.
The national interest of Bangladesh will be given the highest priority in case of foreign relations, no terrorist activity will be tolerated on the soil of Bangladesh and stern measures shall be taken against terrorism, extremism and militancy.
The use of terrorism as a political tool to suppress dissent and opposition political parties by misusing the anti-terrorist law will be stopped and this will facilitate identifying the real terrorists and ensure punishment under the process of law.
The Armed Forces will be appropriately developed imbibed with the supreme spirit of patriotism for safeguarding the sovereignty of the country.
Local government institutions will be independent, strong and empowered for a greater decentralisation of power, he added.
A list of the martyrs of the liberation war will be prepared under state initiative. Modern and time-befitting youth development policies will be formulated in keeping with the vision, thoughts and aspirations of the youth.
'Unemployed educated youths will be given unemployment allowance till he/she gets employed, or for one year, whichever occurs earlier. Increase in age-limit for entry into the government service will be considered in keeping with the international standard.
Specific programmes will be adopted to ensure women empowerment and need-based and knowledge-based education will be given priority.
Based on the principle of 'health for all', universal health care will be introduced in line with 'NHS' in the United Kingdom. Fair prices of agricultural produce will be ensured.
Addressing the press conference, Mosharraf said that BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir had held several rounds of dialogue with the opposition political parties in formulating this reform framework since last August, which was officially announced on Monday.
Apart from senior BNP leaders, Nagarik Oikya president Mahmudur Rahman Manna, Gono Forum faction president Mostafa Mohsin Montu, Gono Odhikar Parishad convener Reza Kibria, Ganosamhati Andolan chief coordinator Zonayed Saki, Bhashani Onusari Parishad convener Sheikh Rafiqul Islam Bablu, Rastra Sanskar Andolan central leader Imran Emon and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JSD leader Kamal Uddin Patwari attended the programme. Leaders of the BNP's formal coalition partners in the 20-party alliance were also present.
Some of the pledges may sound naive, while others come across as barely believable, or even pipe dreams. But the opposition has played its cards, that are now on the table. With a year to go before the elections, we now await to see what the AL comes up with in response, during its national council.
Additional reporting by Shafikul Islam, UNB
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