Can AL rely on its old guard to counter new challenges?
The ruling Awami League's 22nd council concluded on Saturday, electing Sheikh Hasina as its president for a record 10th consecutive time. Obaidul Quader made a hattrick as the general secretary. The national triennial council ended, as expected – even before the council – without any major changes, although the political situation of the country is different this time compared to that of the last two councils.
The last two AL councils were held in 2016 and 2019, and they each took place after the national elections in 2014 and 2018, respectively. But this time, the council was held a year before the national election. Another point to note is that the main opposition camp, BNP, appears to have woken up out of a political hibernation, displaying its organisational strength on the streets. So, the new committee of the ruling party is set to face a double challenge – preparing for election 2023 and politically countering the BNP movement.
In the political arena, the popular perception is that the Awami League is more organised, stronger and more successful when it is the opposition. Starting from the Six-Point Movement of the 1960s, which was the precursor to the 1971 Liberation War, to forcing the BNP government to introduce a constitutional caretaker government provision in 1996, the now-ruling Awami League has historically been seen as a strong, formidable, and vocal opposition on the streets.
But now the question is whether the AL, as a ruling party, is capable of countering the opposition camp's campaign and preparing for the upcoming election at the same time. This may prove difficult given that the party has become used to smooth sailing and calm waters over its 14 consecutive years in office, during which it has successfully managed to stifle any opposition.
It is a well-accepted maxim that parties weaken organisationally with long stints in power. And that holds true for the ruling Awami League. Yes, it is true that the opposition could not put up a strong enough challenge after the January 5, 2014 election and till June of this year. To be more specific, one could even say that it was not the ruling party but the government which was successful in tackling the opposition. That is why we often hear that bureaucrats run the show, not politicians.
On the other hand, with the Awami League in office for 14 years, its grassroots leaders and workers enjoyed a free run because of the opposition camp's organisational weakness. They indulged themselves in other matters (particularly rent seeking), because there was hardly anyone from the opposition to challenge them on the field. And it is no secret that the Awami League General Secretary, Obaidul Quader, told his party leaders and workers to "save the party" by quitting the practice of "exchanging money for positions in local-level committees."
As the AL relied on administration and law enforcers to counter the opposition's campaign on the streets, the party men let loose. So, while the government became stronger, the ruling party did not stay in step. Rather, AL's grassroots leaders and activists have now become more divided. Intra-party conflict has become rampant. Distance between ministers and lawmakers, lawmakers and district leaders and local Awami League leaders have widened.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but one need only look at the fact that more than a hundred people were killed centring the union council elections of 2021, with most of them belonging to the ruling party itself, due to intra-party feuds.
Before the polls, the party announced that rebel candidates who work against the party would be expelled. And many were expelled but before the council. But it is also said that there was a general amnesty granted to those party men. No doubt, this concession was made keeping in mind the next general election and the opposition's campaign. But, will those who revolted once or defamed Bangabandhu or tarnished the image of the government or the party bring any good for the Awami League? Most importantly, how do the survivors of their rebellion view this general amnesty? Could it further widen the prevailing intra-party rift?
The current AL committee is almost unchanged from the previous one, with only a few reshuffles. But when the party, or more appropriately the government, is going through the toughest time of its recent history due to allegations of corruption, the spillover effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, a grim post-Covid economic situation and the opposition's diligent campaign, would it be able to overcome the crises simply by relying on the old guard?
Any new council brings some changes to the party in order to reorganise it. But this time, the ruling party appears to want to rely on its old faithfuls to face the upcoming challenges. Of course, only time will tell how far they can go relying on its old stalwarts. One thing is clear: the ruling party is passing through a very critical time on many fronts, and a slip, any slip on any front, would prove very costly indeed.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.