Bangladeshi politics saw the unlikely emergence of a new alliance last week – the “Jatyio Oikya” or National Unity Front – forged between the country’s center-right opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and some left-leaning parties.
The alliance has formed ahead of a general election in December, with the 82-year-old secular icon Kamal Hossain at its helm, or “Dr Kamal” as he is famously known in the country.
BNP chief Khaleda Zia — a former three-time prime minister — is languishing in jail on corruption charges, while her son Tarique Rahman, the de facto leader, is in exile after being sentenced to life in prison after a hearing over a bomb blast.
On the backfoot with the national election just months away, the BNP, one of the two largest political parties in Bangladesh, accepted Dr Kamal as its leader. He is a man never involved with right-wing politics despite a political career spanning over half a century.
Goals of national unity
“We are making a call for national unity in the interest of the nation, not for any particular political party,” Dr Kamal said while announcing the new alliance at a crowded press conference on October 13. “We expect others to join the Jatiya Oikya Front.”
The 11-point goal declared by the alliance includes ensuring checks and balances on state power, decentralization of administration, freeing Members of Parliament from the stringent restrictions imposed on them under article 70 of the constitution, formation of a constitutional commission to make appointments to all constitutional and other important posts and full independence for the judiciary.
The alliance also put forward a seven-point demand, including holding the next parliamentary election under a nonpartisan government, dissolution of parliament before the polls and recasting the Election Commission.
“There is no alternative to a free and fair election,” the alliance leader Dr Kamal said.
Who’s in and who’s not
Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a key politician and former Awami League stalwart who later formed another party named Nagorik Oikyo (Citizen’s Unity), and ASM Abdur Rob — one of the most renowned leftist leaders who heads Jatyio Somajtantrik Dol (JSD) — have joined the National Unity Front.
However, the Kamal-led alliance left out its previous ally Bikalpa Dhara (Alternative Path), led by the former national president AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, as cracks opened among splinter groups.
A little under a month before the formation of the new alliance, Dr Kamal and Chowdhury formed another alliance named “Greater National Unity” with the aim of ensuring a functional democracy in the country.
But Kamal left Bikalpa Dhara as it demanded that the BNP keep its main ally Jamaat-E-Islami — the country’s largest Islamist party — out of the National Unity Front. Both BNP and Dr Kamal, however, opted to keep Jamaat ties intact instead of keeping Bikalpa Dhara in the latest alliance.
After being left out, Bikalpa Dhara said, in an official statement: “If the National Unity Front’s only goal is to bring the BNP back to power, we will not be part of it.”
The ruling Awami League, the BNP’s arch-rivals, harshly criticized the new alliance. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also chairperson of the Awami League, said Dr Kamal “talks big, criticizes corruption and money laundering” but ultimately ends up forming an alliance with “BNP and Jamaat, who are crooks.”
“Killers, people who burn others alive, the corrupt, those who steal money from orphans. He [Kamal] forms an alliance with them,” Hasina said. “Some other minor people have joined in as well. That is their alliance.”
Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader hailed the new alliance as “fragile” and said: “Such unity will never work and their efforts will go in vain soon, as it is an attempt to mix oil and water.”
Future of the alliance
The alliance leader Dr Kamal has a fine résumé as an internationally acclaimed jurist and human rights defender. A former Law minister and then Foreign minister in the cabinet of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Dr Kamal is also credited with drafting the first secular constitution after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.
Talking to Asia Times, Bangladeshi political analyst Zia Hassan said, Dr Kamal may not be a household name across the country but within the educated and enlightened middle class, he was revered. “Although, he has been credited with bringing Sheikh Hasina back to Bangladesh from her exile in India and steadying the ship of the Awami League when it was in turmoil back in late 70s, lately the two have fallen apart.”
Hassan said Dr Kamal opted to form a national unity movement because of PM Sheikh Hasina’s “dictatorial tendencies” and her desire and a clearly designed mechanism to hold on to power without a mandate from the people.
Hassan believed this odd mix had caught public attention and “there is now a new impetus within the opposition forces that if the popular support enjoyed by BNP can be merged together with the middle class and elite legitimacy of Dr Kamal and others, the combining force would be greater than the sum of its individual parts.”
Dr Ali Riaz, a Distinguished Professor at Illinois State University’s Department of Politics and Government in the US, told Asia Times that although there had been some hiccups in the beginning, the new alliance was likely to last until the election.
“This is because the members of this alliance will lose significantly if the alliance fails to sustain. Considering the overall political situation, they have very little option other than sticking together.”
Dr Riaz said the most important question in regard to how successful the new pairing would be was “How much is the BNP prepared to accommodate its alliance partners?”