Bangladesh has been facing a series of political crises in the recent years. The latest one is the arrest of Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition party – the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), following a court verdict on corruption charges. After ten years of trial, the court convicted Khaleda Zia, her son and four more for embezzling 21 million taka ($253,000) from a foreign fund meant for an orphanage trust.
Khaleda Zia is not the only politician in South Asia to be convicted by the Courts in the recent months. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court convicted Nawaz Sharif, a sitting Prime Minister and stripped him of his position; courts in India sentenced former Chief Ministers of Bihar and Tamil Nadu earlier. So, for the region, this is not a new phenomenon.
However, in Bangladesh, the court verdict is expected to create a crisis, due to its timing, impact on the two-party domestic political structure, and the popularity of the Awami League at present. Will Bangladesh weather this political cyclone? More importantly, will the BNP and Khaleda Zia be able to overcome this arrest, given the fact that the next election is around the corner?
Court Verdict: Just before the next election
The previous election for the national assembly of Bangladesh was held in 2014, which was boycotted by the BNP led opposition. As a result, the Awami League that had formed the government earlier following the 2008 election, also won the 2014 election with a landslide margin. It had won in 234 seats (out of the total 300); many seats (close to 150) went uncontested. The Awami League polled close to 80 percent of the total votes; however, the polling itself was a meagre 22 percent.
With the BNP and its allies not taking part in the 2014 election, the Awami League had an absolute majority in the Parliament, with little or no opposition. Though the BNP and its allies could protest on the streets, it is no alternative for being a formal opposition within the Parliament. The polling percentage in 2014 elections (22 percent) did hint about the role that the BNP could have played had it took part in the election.
Not only there were political protests by the opposition since 2014, but also there have been severe criticisms against the Awami League government on many counts – especially the domestic governance and in the recent months, its handling of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
A section within Bangladesh has been critical of the Awami League’s performance on domestic governance, economy and foreign policy fronts. The party has been ruling since 2008, that too with no opposition within the Parliament during the last five years; so, there should be no excuse for the lack of achievements.
Due to the above, the BNP and its allies should have been looking forward to the forthcoming election later this year. Hence the court verdict at this crucial juncture and the arrest of Khaleda Zia spells disaster for the BNP.
Khaleda Zia verdict and the impending political storm
Bangladesh’s politics have remained deeply polarised since the 1990s, due to two primary factors. First, the polity has become a two-party system with the AL and BNP being the primary contenders. Though Bangladesh does have other political parties, their political strength – both inside and outside the Parliament has been limited. There were political alliances, but they were led by the BNP and AL, with other political parties – secular and religious having limited electoral influences. With no credible third alternative, both parties were deciding the present and the future of Bangladesh.
Second, both parties have remained highly antagonistic to each other. The politics of Bangladesh during the last two decades could be explained as between two Begums – Khaleda Zia (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina (AL). Both the Begums would exactly pursue a course of action when the other was in opposition. As a leader of the government, they have been reluctant to consider the demands of the opposition, and as a leader of the opposition, they would refuse to cooperate and even take part in the Parliamentary proceedings. It is a wonder how Bangladesh’s democratic politics survived the antagonism between these two begums.
The court verdict on Khaleda Zia constitutionally may have less to do with the ruling Awami League. The case was pursued in the judiciary; after a long trial, the court convicted Khaleda Zia and a few more including her son. The opposition sees it as a part of a conspiracy led by the Awami League. They consider the verdict as a collusion between the executive and judiciary branches of the government. Worse, there is a fear that the Awami League is planning to steal the forthcoming elections for the national Parliament. With Khaleda Zia put behind bars for the next five years, the BNP may not be able to succeed in mobilizing the party to fight and win the forthcoming elections.
Hence, the opposition parties led by the BNP would like to show their power in the streets and bring Bangladesh to a standstill.
Will 2018 Elections also go uncontested?
Will the BNP be willing to contest the elections without their leader? Less likely. An option most likely to be pursued by the party is – to boycott it, with a demand, unless their leader is released. Most likely, one could see the repeat of what had happened in 2014 – Awami League going ahead with the elections without any credible opposition.
Though much would depend on the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, an option for the Parliament is something like a National Reconciliation Plan, similar to what Musharraf offered a decade ago in Pakistan. Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina has the majority in the Parliament to pursue such a strategy, but would not do it, given the history.
The Awami League is likely to wash off its hands on the crisis – as a verdict of the judiciary that needs to be respected. Perhaps, they have a point.
What about the BNP?
For the BNP, it is not just the arrest of Khaled Zia. It is about the future of the party and its leadership.
The party has been out of power during the last two terms – since 2008. If the BNP fails to come back to power, it would be a long period. Will the BNP be able to keep the party united?
With their leader – Khaleda Zia already put in jail, will she be able to lead the party from behind bars? It is not an impossible task; in India, in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha did precisely that when she was alive and put behind bars. Her mentor – MG Ramachandran won the elections, when he was unwell and not even in the country!
15 years is not a long period in a democratic course. Parties and leaders do bounce back. And they have done it in South Asia. The BNP and Khaleda Zia should put a brave front and contest the elections, instead of boycotting. Who knows, the political storm may get strengthened into a sympathy wave.
But the BNP is less likely to pursue such a strategy. Rather, the party along with its allies are likely to engage in protests and violence in the streets – leading to political instability.
A political storm is gathering in Bangladesh. The country has witnessed numerous cyclones and hurricanes in the past, and has survived it. Will it survive this political storm? What devastation will this leave?