Has Bangladeshi politics ever benefited from forging alliances?

Any intellectual or political movement must pause from time to time to look critically at itself and to assess its performances in order to be able to map its own future course. Political parties can establish collaboration agreements on a wide variety of issues, including joint government formation after the elections, joining forces with several parties, to overturn another party, to modify elements of the political system or to jointly determine specific policies.

After restoration of democracy in 1990, the ushering in of an authentic competitive political environment has brought a phase of coalition governments and alliance politics at the national level.

The 11th national election is only three months away, as the Election Commission has already declared that it plans to hold the polls in the last week of December. The month September has become extremely important before the electoral campaigns begin, with the commission gearing up to announce the election schedule in October.

The ruling Awami League-led 14-party alliance, BNP-led 20-party alliance, a new unity between Gono Forum and Juktofront - all have chalked out numerous programs for September, in order to either retain or establish dominance in the political arena ahead of the polls.

The last session of the parliament, before it is dissolved, also began on September 9, and many important decisions, such as forming an election-time government, might be taken before the end of that session.

For the past several months, Awami League has been trying to make new ties with several left-leaning political parties. On July 24, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader made an unscheduled visit to the office of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) to discuss the political situation of the country. During the visit, Obaidul discussed the present political situation, quota reform movement, the upcoming parliamentary election, and a possible political alliance with the CPB, sources in both the parties told the Dhaka Tribune.

CPB recently formed an alliance named the Left Democratic Alliance with the Socialist Party of Bangladesh and six other leftist parties. Sources said the ruling party is reportedly trying to bring the CPB and its alliance to participate in the upcoming election, and Obaidul's visit was a part of that agenda.

Obaidul, also the road transport and bridges minister, also spoke with the Socialist Party of Bangladesh leaders, Krishak Sramik Janata League President Abdul Kader Siddique and Nazmul Huda, former minister of BNP-Jamaat-led government and also the chief of the Bangladesh National Alliance (BNA), on July 26 this year.

Nine small political parties led by Nazmul Huda have expressed their interest to work with Awami League and have held meetings with 14-party alliance leaders.

Gono Forum President Dr Kamal Hossain and leaders of Juktofront recently decided to unite with the view to serve the country together ahead of the 11th parliamentary election. The decision was made at a meeting held at Kamal Hossain's Bailey Road residence last week.

"We have decided to form a sub-committee to organize all programs of the alliance and will inform everyone about our future plans," said AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, who also heads Juktofront and Bikalpodhara Bangladesh. Apart from working together with Juktofront leaders, Kamal is also trying to form the National Unity along with all opposition parties, including BNP and excluding Jamaat.

Meanwhile, over the past few months, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has held talks with various political parties, including all member parties of Juktofront, as they are currently in the process of reorganizing alliances to be more competitive in the upcoming national polls.

BNP leaders recently also met Kamal regarding the new alliance, which will be formed with the aim of compelling the government to hold the polls under a neutral administration.

Why shake hands with competitors?

First of all, political parties can form coalitions, whose lists include candidates from each political party or are independent, identifying themselves as a coalition and no longer representing themselves independently in the constituencies affected by the coalition.

Another option is to alternatively submit lists of either of the parties in each constituency, in order to optimize the expected electoral support for each party. This is common practice in mature party systems, thus ensuring maximum effectiveness of their campaigns and prevention of the negative effects of vote dispersion on themselves or on the parties from which they can expect certain support or co-operation.

The history of alliances

More than six decades ago misrule by the Muslim League-led government had laid the foundation for the formation of a historic electoral alliance, United Front, in November 1953. The alliance was a manifestation of people's dissatisfaction caused by economic disparity, poor representation of Bengalis in the government, misrule and political-repression by the then regime.

The triumvirate--A K Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani were the architects of the United Front that consisted mainly of four parties of the then East Pakistan--Awami League, Krishak Sramik Party, Nizam-e-Islam and Gonotantri Dal. The main objective of the alliance was to fight then ruling Muslim League in the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly election held in between 8-12 March 1954. The charisma of the triumvirate had influenced voters a lot in the battle of ballots. The result was a comprehensive victory for the alliance. It won a landslide victory in the assembly election. The ruling Muslim League faced a crushing defeat. Then Chief Minister Nurul Amin also faced a humiliating defeat.

After around three decades of historic victory for the United Front, politics of alliances in independent Bangladesh gained momentum during the autocratic rule of HM Ershad. Anti-Ershad regime organizations called for the formation of alliances by opposition political parties to intensify the street agitations to restore country's democracy by ousting the autocratic ruler form office. Accordingly, two major alliances emerged in the political landscape. One was the centrist-left 15 party alliance-led by Awami League which was formed in January 1983 and among other components of the alliance was Awami League (Siddique) BAKSAL, JSD, Gana Azadi League and Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal. The 15 party alliance raised 11-point demands on April 7, 1983 which included immediate withdrawal of martial law, freedom of expression and political rights and restoration of the parliamentary democracy.

The other major political party, BNP that had been demanding transfer of power to former President Abdus Sattar, who was ousted by General Ershad on March 24, 1982 from the presidency and revival of the suspended constitution, also changed its strategy considering the political reality. It opted for forging an alliance in the middle of 1983. It formed a 7 party alliance under its leadership. The other components of the alliance were UPP, NAP, Jatiya League, Ganatantrik Party, Communist League and Krishak Sramik Party,

After ousting Ershad in December 1990, the unity of the alliances weakened ahead of the fifth parliamentary election held in February 1991. The AL did not bother to consult with its alliance partners before finalizing the party's nominations for the general election. The party announced its nominations for almost all of the parliamentary seats which frustrated its partners in the alliance.

Later, the AL however shared some seats with its partners. On the other hand, the BNP tried to forge an electoral alliance, but could not succeed in its move. Yet there was an unofficial deal between the BNP and Jamaat. They supported each other candidates in some constituencies to win the election.

Khaleda and her BNP policymakers might have learnt lessons from the agitation waged by opposition parties led by the AL against the BNP government in between 1994-96. They might have perceived the importance of forming electoral alliances to wage agitation against the Hasina government and fight the AL in the 2001 election. In doing so, they took a step ahead. They formed a four party- electoral alliance consisting of BNP, Jatiya Party-led by Ershad, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote.

The alliance won a landslide victory in the polls and formed the government. Jamaat's chief Motiur Rahman Nizami and its secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed were made ministers of the Khaleda government, allowing them to taste power in independent Bangladesh. Jamaat, the anti-liberation force, consolidated its strength in politics mainly due to the unethical power struggle between the AL and BNP.

The AL-led grand alliance in which the Ershad-led Jatiya Party was a key component got a landslide victory in December 2008 parliamentary election. So, Ershad's Jatiya Party again got a taste of state power. Jatiya Party first got a taste of state power in 1996 when the AL, under leadership of Hasina, formed the government.

During the 2014 elections, the AL distributed the parliamentary seats among its candidates and alliance partners. Sensing the BNP-led alliance's boycott to the election, the AL asked the Jatiya Party to quit the AL-led grand alliance and contested the election separately. The AL has made the Jatiya Party the main opposition party in parliament. But making three of Jatiya Party MPs ministers, the AL created an unprecedented example in the parliamentary democracy.

On the other hand, the BNP refused to cut relation with its key ally Jamaat despite huge pressure from home and abroad. In people's eyes, Jamaat has been branded as a terrorist organisation for its mindless violence since 1971. It is still almost certain that the BNP will not respond to the people's demand. It will keep its tie with Jamaat as the BNP policymakers believe they need Jamaat's support to fight the AL to grab state power.

Fate of alliances on loop?

The ultimate success of the alliance depends on the goodwill of the partners. It is difficult, at this stage, to predict the eventual outcome of the alliance with so many ifs and buts, particularly when the partners of the alliance have deep conflict of values and interest that apparently are not always visible.

A comprehensive discussion should be kicked off immediately to find ways to get rid of unethical politics of alliance. Again, country's civil society organisations and individuals should start speaking on this matter to build public opinion on it. If people are made aware of it, the two major political parties will feel pressured and then they may start taking corrective measures.

The Election Commission should also play a crucial role. It may move for electoral reforms to clean the dirt in the politics of alliance. Like obtaining registration with the EC, there should be some criteria for a political party to form an alliance with others. The EC may sit with electoral experts, political scientists and civil society personalities and seek their opinion on it.

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