Supporters of the Jatiya Party, at the time an alliance partner of ruling Prime Minister and Awami League-led chief Sheikh Hasina, outside a polling station in Dhaka on December 30, 2018. Photo: Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP

Bangladesh is experiencing the strange problem of finding a parliamentary opposition deemed to be suitable and acceptable, after the latest national elections were completed on December 30.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest parliamentary democracies. Upon completion of the latest election, which many independent observers termed “controversial”, the country’s 11th national parliament sees the Jatiya Party, a key ally of the newly-re-elected ruling Awami League sitting in opposition.

After the election results were finalized, the Jatiya Party was undecided for about a week on whether to join the government or to act as its opposition in the new parliament.

On January 4, Jatiya Party co-chairman GM Quader declared that the party had unanimously decided to be a part of the new government led by the Awami League. He told the media that since his party had participated in the election under the banner of the Awami League-led grand alliance, it wanted to join the government.

He added, “We doubt if people will accept us as the opposition if we quit the grand alliance now to play the role of the opposition… We don’t want to sit on the opposition bench… This is a practical problem for us.”

Yet only a day later, Jatiya Party Chairman and former Bangladeshi President HM Ershad, who is notorious for his fickle decision making, said the party will be the main opposition in parliament with no representation in the new cabinet.

In a written statement, Ershad said: “As the chairman of the Jatiya Party, I would like to inform the people of the country and party leaders and activists at all levels that the Jatiya Party will act as the main opposition party in the 11th parliament.”

The party’s decision to lead opposition in parliament comes as the other opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), rejected what it deemed “controversial” poll results and its lawmakers did not take the oath.

On January 10, speaker of the 11th national Parliament Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury approved HM Ershad as the opposition leader and ratified GM Quader as the deputy leader of the opposition.

Swinging both ways

The Ershad-led Jatiya Party had acted as the main opposition in the 10th parliament since the alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—one of the two major parties (the other being the Awami league) in the country’s two-party dominated political system—boycotted the 2014 national election.

However, during their five-year term in opposition to the government in the 10th parliament, the ruling Awami League passed a total of 149 bills, with not one of them being opposed by the Jatiya Party.

Moreover, in the cabinet of the last Awami League government, there were three ministers from the Jatiya Party. It was the first instance in the country’s history where members of the parliamentary opposition were given seats in the cabinet.

A report published by the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) accused the Jatiya Party of playing an “ineffective dual role” by letting its leaders become ministers while at the same time their party was serving in opposition to the government.

Experts are now questioning whether, as was the case during the 10th parliament, Awami League’s parliamentary bills will go unchallenged and unscrutinized.

When asked why the party has changed its stance to become the opposition, GM Quader, Jatiya Party Co-chairman, said, “In politics, there is no such thing as the last word. Decisions might get changed at the last minute. We have taken this decision [to be the parliamentary opposition] for the betterment of the country,” he said.

He said the party would challenge any misdeeds of the government and would practice the policy of constructive criticism in the house. “We will hold the government accountable for its actions.”

Controversial election

After a decade in government, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regained power for the third consecutive time through an election that was termed by the United Nations as “not perfect.”

The Awami League-led Grand Alliance took 288 out of 299 seats (with Awami League winning 257 of them) in elections that were marred by intimidation of voters and polling agents, occupations of polling centers, and clashes among followers of opposing candidates.

The Jatiya Party, a key component of the Grand Alliance, secured 22 seats out of 288. The main challenger of the Grand Alliance, the BNP-led Jatiya Oikya Front, managed to win only seven seats. The BNP termed the election “farcical”, rejected the results and demanded fresh polls under a non-partisan government.

Transparency International Bangladesh said in its election observation report that it found election irregularities like stamping ballot papers the night before the polls and ballot stuffing by capturing booths on the election day in 47 out of 50 constituencies it surveyed.

Dr Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Politics and Government of  Illinois State University, United States, told Asia Times that unless there is any pressure on the Election Commission, there is no likelihood of an investigation into the massive irregularities.

Considering the extent of irregularities, the only correct course is to hold a fresh election under a neutral administration. However, understandably, at this time the ruling Awami League has no reason to move in that direction.

Questionable opposition

Riaz believes that having the Jatiya Party in opposition for the 11th national parliament is an indicator that the Awami League is consolidating its power. “There is no reason to expect that the Jatiya Party will act as an effective opposition,” said Riaz.

He said the Jatiya Party’s primary role will be to act as a “showpiece” to counter criticism, from home and abroad, that an engineered election has delivered a one-party parliament.

“It’s a member of the ruling alliance; how can a member of the ruling alliance be an opposition?” said Riaz.

In answer to such skepticism, the Jatiya Party’s GM Quader said the party would gain people’s confidence by playing the role of a “real opposition party” in the House.

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