Key Bangladeshi opposition group to contest December elections

Following an appeal from opposition parties, Bangladesh’s election commission on Monday agreed to delay national elections, with voters now voting on December 30.

The push to delay the election was led by a union of opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has decided to participate in elections despite party leader Khaleda Zia currently sitting in jail on corruption charges.

The alliance, called the National Oikya Front includes the BNP and other opposition parties. Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda welcomed their participation.

The National Oikya Front could challenge Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina from the ruling Awami League (AL), as she competes for a third consecutive term. It had been unclear if Zia’s BNP, which boycotted the last election in 2014, would participate after their leader’s sentencing. By joining the opposition alliance, Zia’s party is positioning itself to regain influence.

Support from Zia Khaleda

Top opposition leaders met with Zia in a jail on Monday in the capital Dhaka, and she asked the opposition alliance to participate in the election, according to media reports.

Bangladesh’s election commission last month cancelled the registration of Jamaat-e-Islami, a major BNP partner, but allowed for a reformation of a new opposition alliance.

Zia, 73, has been in jail since February for allegedly being involved in a scam involving an orphanage fund she established during her term as Bangladesh’s PM from 1991 to 1996. In October, the High Court extended Zia’s sentence to 10 years.

Zia’s participation in the election is still uncertain as Bangladesh’s constitution disqualifies anyone convicted of “immoral crimes” to run in an election for at least two years.

Read more: Bangladesh’s Zia fights for her political future

Does the opposition stand a chance?

Many AL leaders have been showing caution when predicting the outcome of the election, believing there is never an easy path to victory.

Prime Minister Hasina and the party general secretary Obaidul Quader told party leaders that the selection of the candidates will only be based on performance and popularity in their constituencies.

Bangladeshi political analyst Badiul Alam Majumder told DW he believes that this new alliance could give AL a tough fight.

“If there is a free and fair election, it will not be easy for AL this time,” said Majumder.

During the last election in 2014, the BNP and some other parties did not take part. They wanted an interim caretaker government to hold the election. This time they will not restrain themselves from taking part in the election.

There are other four smaller parties making up the opposition alliance, and even though they are lightweights compared to the AL or BNP, Majumder points out their leaders do have acceptance among the public, adding that there is still the problem of electoral fraud in Bangladesh.

“I have a lot of doubts about a free and fair election,” Majumder told DW. “I hope the national polls will not be like some of the local elections that were held over the past few years.”

For a few years, the BNP has also been part of a 20-party alliance, with Jamaat-e-Islami as a key partner. In the new alliance, the BNP is the only representative of that former partnership. To keep up with both alliances the BNP have to make some sacrifices.

“We’ve heard that the allied parties are demanding 100-150 seats out of 300, which is difficult,” said analyst Majumder, adding that he expects some level of renegotiation after the election is decided.

The upcoming election is Bangladesh’s 11th general election since gaining independence in 1971.

A historic divide

Hasina and Zia, who between them have ruled Bangladesh for decades, are bitter rivals and the BNP says its leader has been jailed on trumped up charges to keep her out of politics.

Earlier this month, Hasina held rare talks with opposition parties, in what some view as a positive step ahead of the upcoming general elections. But she ruled out accepting the opposition’s main demand.

During the talks, the opposition raised several demands, such as the dissolution of the current parliament and handing over power to a caretaker government as well as the release of political prisoners, including Zia.

“The positive thing is that a political dialogue between the two sides actually took place,” political scientist Majumder told DW. “Those who believe that everything will be solved in just one meeting are wrong.”

More talks are scheduled to take place in the coming days, raising hopes among observers that both sides will resolve their disagreements amicably and violence won’t mar the elections this time round.

Read more: Why the EU isn’t sending election observers to Bangladesh