Analysts more or less agree that the imprisonment of one of the main contenders in the political arena in a corruption case prior to the election, will have a long-term impact on the country’s politics. Obaidul Quader, general secretary of Awami League, the main party in the ruling alliance, has however said that Khaleda Zia’s sentence has not created a crisis in national politics; it has simply exacerbated BNP’s internal crisis. He failed to explain how BNP’s crisis was not a crisis in national politics, given the fact that all levels of leaders and workers in the ruling party have been churning out a continuous flow of vitriol against BNP in their every speech and statement.
There can, of course, be several analyses. Firstly, beset with a volley of corruption, sabotage and murder charges, BNP has no alternative but to take part in the upcoming election. In this instance, there is a view within the ruling coalition that the BNP has realised that boycotting the 2014 election was a mistake. There is also the fear of the party’s registration with the election commission being cancelled if they boycott the election twice consecutively. They may also lose their election symbol (though their participation in the local polls has possibly dispelled this risk).
It is true that if the party is kept under such pressure, they will hardly be able to focus on preparing for the election. They will inevitably fall behind in the election race.
Khaleda Zia’s appeal in the Zia Orphanage Trust case depends on obtaining a certified copy of the judgement. Then there are questions as to how long it will take to get bail once the appeal is filed, and if granted bail, will she even be able to participate in the polls. Hearing of the Zia Charitable Trust case is also nearing conclusion. This is the second case, linked to the same foreign fund for which she has been convicted. This verdict may be given in a month or two. If she is sentenced for the second time, then the questions of bail and participation in the polls will arise yet again. Even if the other cases are not taken into cognizance, Awami League will remain four to six months ahead in its election campaigning. So the crisis certainly is BNP’s!
Secondly, it may be that Awami League and its allies have already decided their aim for a parliament similar to the tenth parliament, where the opposition does not exist. The law minister has said in no uncertain terms, even if no one joins, the election will be held in accordance to the law and there is nothing for the government to do. The opposition leader will be one of their own, that is, someone from a party that joins the cabinet. And if no one is eager to join the opposition, that is not a problem either. We have the experience of a parliament without an effective opposition. And there’s Cambodia, our new found close friend!
The BNP chairperson is in her seventies. Her resurgence in politics will not be an easy task, given the three dozen or so cases she is having to face, along with the possibility of further prison sentences. Her only living successor Tarique Rahman himself faces several cases and so it is not possible for him to return to the country and take the helm of the party. And so, many within Awami League feel that BNP’s days of dynastic politics are nearing an end.
Thirdly, if certain leaders and workers of BNP, out of power for 12 years and facing a multitude of cases and repression, can be instigated to split BNP and form a new party, then it won’t be a problem even if Khaleda Zia doesn’t join the election. If this faction of BNP joins the polls, then the election can be projected at home and abroad as a participatory one.
Then there is yet another possibility. But before going into that, the flip side of the three above scenarios needs to be seen. Firstly, it must be evaluated as to whether BNP has concluded that not joining the 2014 election was actually a mistake. Over the past four years, the BNP chief Khaleda Zia never said that even a single time. No one other than Awami League and its allies took part in that election. None of the other parties who stayed away from the 2014 elections, including CPBm Biklapadhara, Gono Forum, Krishak Sramik Janata League, BSD have so far reached such a conclusion either. On the contrary, the government itself does not want a repeat of 2014, which is a tacit admission of the deficiency in their mandate.
The European Parliament delegation, the UN and the US all want an election with the participation of all parties. If BNP is dropped, surely their expectations will not be met. India may have been the only one to give the 2014 election a stamp of legitimacy, but this time even they want inclusive polls. Another one-sided election will drag Bangladesh down from a faltering democracy to a state bereft of any democracy whatsoever. Why will BNP not grab this opportunity to cash in on the government’s shaky state? Why will BNP be interested in an election which serves no purpose of their own, but simply serves to lend the government legitimacy? So if their demands are not met satisfactorily, they may make best of a bad situation by making the elections a questionable exercise.
Also, expressing their willingness to join the election may be BNP’s tactics to make Awami League desperate. This desperation can give them valid excuse to turn away from the election. The priority attached to the orphanage case and the announcement that they won’t go to the elections without Khaleda Zia, are indications to this end.
It is evident from the statements made by BNP leaders that they feel they are steadily regaining public sympathy with Khaleda Zia’s incarceration. And shunning violence in their movement is part of the strategy to consolidate public support. This may serve to motivate the party leaders and activists. In fact, many of them appear quite active despite the government’s repressive measures. Another rather amazing fact is that all attempts to break BNP over the past decade have failed.
Experience over the past four years shows that suppressing BNP has simply led to clashes and bloodshed within Awami League itself. However, the clashes within Awami League are mostly over sharing ill-gotten booty.
BNP still heads those who express opposing political opinion on a national level. Religion plays a role in BNP’s politics. The party has been criticised for allegations of alliance with the anti-independence Jamaat and militant elements among religion-based political parties and groups. But Awami League’s counter stance has served to curb BNP’s prominence in religion-based politics. Awami League’s proximity with the extreme conservative Hefazat-e-Islam has reached an all-time high. Many within Hefazat are even considering joining the election. If BNP and others do not join the polls, these pro-Islamic groups will be enthused to contest in the election. Under such circumstances, can the possibility of a rise in pro-Islamic politics in Bangladesh be ruled out?
Our civil society is vocal in their criticism against BNP’s overt and covert interactions with religious elements, but remains silent over the ruling party’s appeasement policy and links with the religious parties. There is also no discourse on how the ruling coterie has become authoritarian in absence of an effective opposition.
Khaleda Zia’s verdict has undoubtedly deepened BNP’s crisis, but national politics certainly hasn’t been freed of crisis either. It is not as if bringing BNP somehow or the other to the election will dispel the crisis. There is need for at least a minimum understanding among political parties on the vital questions of democracy, freedom of expression, the rule of law and reforms of the election system.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant (Content) Prothom Alo English Online.