The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has a lengthy history of engaging in and abstaining from electoral processes. Throughout the years, the BNP has employed diverse strategies to influence the country's political landscape. One such strategy involves the deliberate choice to boycott elections, which can be viewed as a form of protest against perceived electoral irregularities or as a calculated manoeuvre to secure political advantages. As the 12th National Assembly elections approach in early 2024, there has been substantial deliberation regarding the BNP's potential participation in these elections. Five city corporation elections are scheduled for May/June this year. In response, the BNP has opted not to partake in these elections, as it demands the holding of elections conducted under a caretaker government. Consequently, a pertinent question arises: will the BNP be able to capitalise on any potential gains resulting from their decision to boycott the elections?
Expressing apprehension regarding the integrity and openness of the electoral process, the BNP chose to refrain from participating in the 2014 elections. Their stance is rooted in believing that engaging in flawed elections would inadvertently endorse an unjust system. Consequently, they have resolved to abstain from contesting any form of election under the present government. Although they boycotted the elections in 2014, their attempt to secure the populace's support through participation in the 2018 parliamentary elections proved unsuccessful.
Despite the inherent risks, the BNP is determined to leverage any potential advantages resulting from their decision to boycott the election. The party aims to mitigate the risk of electoral defeat by abstaining from contested elections, which could further undermine its political standing. However, through their election boycott, the party seeks to highlight the pressing need for electoral transparency, fairness and reforms. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years, the BNP has struggled to earn the people's trust, making it challenging to rally public support in their favour.
Adopting an election boycott strategy presents BNP with numerous challenges and limitations. One significant limitation is the absence of direct access to political power for boycotting parties. Consequently, their supporters may lose faith in the party. By boycotting elections, the BNP's representation in the local government system diminishes, depriving its leaders and workers of opportunities to voice their perspectives on policy adoption and implementation in local governance. This lack of direct representation can hinder the party's ability to enact its agenda and diminish its overall influence on policymaking.
Furthermore, there is no assurance from any source that the BNP's concerns regarding the electoral process will be adequately addressed through their election boycott. Consequently, a significant portion of the population believes that boycotting the election to pressure the government will yield no positive outcomes for them. Simultaneously, the party's non-participation in the local government system allows the ruling party to establish a monopoly, potentially bolstering their ability to mobilise the populace in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Through their decision to boycott the city corporation elections, the BNP aims to gain sympathy from the international community. The effectiveness of this strategy and the extent of pressure that the international community will exert on behalf of the BNP remain important questions. Several factors must be considered when evaluating the response of the international community. Indeed, the international community generally upholds the principles of democracy, including the importance of free and fair elections. The BNP's concerted efforts to seek the international community's sympathy through lobbyists for an extended period may have resonated with some countries, potentially influencing their stance in favour of the BNP.
It is crucial to acknowledge that countries with bilateral relations with Bangladesh should respect its sovereignty and refrain from intervening in its internal affairs, particularly regarding the conduct of fair and inclusive elections. Interfering in such matters would violate diplomatic protocol. Recently, the ambassadors of various countries who expressed concerns about Bangladesh's electoral system emphasised that the election is an internal matter. Consequently, attempting to garner sympathy from foreign entities through an election boycott raises doubts about the potential positive outcomes it may yield. Additionally, to gain the international community's sympathy, the BNP must substantiate its claims of electoral irregularities or flaws in the democratic process. Without concrete evidence and a compelling narrative, it may prove challenging for the BNP to generate sufficient sympathy.
Many citizens believe that had the BNP participated in the city corporation elections and identified any potential instances of electoral manipulation by the ruling party, they would have been better positioned to demand elections under a caretaker government. Consequently, the decision to abstain from participating in this election has squandered a valuable opportunity for the BNP. While some may disagree with this assertion, it is undeniably true that it would present a favourable opportunity for the BNP. Additionally, this election would provide the BNP with a direct platform to engage with voters, convey their message and showcase their popularity. Their bargaining power could have been bolstered by advocating for electoral reforms and a caretaker government.
Consequently, a prevailing belief among the majority of citizens in the country is that employing an election boycott to attain political advantage will not yield positive outcomes for the BNP. Participation in elections allows a political party to consolidate its support at the local level. However, the BNP's decision to boycott elections for over a decade has rendered the party organisationally feeble at the grassroots level. Furthermore, the party has already experienced weakened influence from being out of power for an extended period. Many party leaders have intruded into the ruling party, exacerbating people's frustration due to the BNP's lack of representation in the central and local governments. Consequently, public disillusionment towards the party continues to escalate with each passing day.
In the past decade, the BNP has been unable to effectively rally public support, even in advocating for the release of their chairperson, Begum Khaleda Zia. Consequently, the party's endeavour to exert pressure on the government through implementing an election boycott strategy before the forthcoming parliamentary elections is widely perceived by the majority of the population as destined for failure once again.
Furthermore, due to their prolonged tenure in power, the current government has consolidated its position significantly. On the other hand, the substantial development initiatives undertaken within the country have brought relief to the people, and the leadership of the esteemed Prime Minister has garnered widespread international appreciation. Consequently, the current government of Bangladesh is unlikely to yield to any form of international pressure. Therefore, the majority of the population in the country perceives that the BNP's aspirations of gaining sympathy from the international community through election boycotts will not yield significant positive outcomes.
(The writer is a Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi)
Source: Sun Editorial