Bangladesh is facing a political upheaval

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There are dozens of cases pending against Begum Zia, a staunch rival of Sheikh Hasina. The charges against her led to her boycotting the polls in 2014. The Awani League appears close to striking a crippling blow to the BNP having the portends of ushering in a new era in that country’s politics. At its full strength with BNP’s Khaleda being in the vanguard has created problems. Thus, the BNP with a sidelined Begum Zia is bound to be a less frightening or alarming prospect.

Bangladesh finds itself in turmoil once again. At stake is the political survival of the two-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia following her arrest recently in a graft case filed a decade back in 2008. She was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment. Her lawyers spoke of the injustice done to her and expected to move a bail petition on her behalf.

The political options in that country have largely revolved around the two women politicians — Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina —  with the people regretting the lack of wider choice. In the 2013 elections, the US backed Begum Zia fell by the wayside. The fresh elections immediately thereafter in 2014 saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina considering other options which proved beneficial. Bangladesh and India resolved the festering boundary problem putting in place a clearly marked land boundary.

In the last general elections, when the BNP chief stood down, Sheikh Hasina swept to power. While Khaleda heads the Bangladesh National party (BNP), Sheikh Hasina spearheads the Awani League (AL). There are dozens of cases pending against Begum Zia, a staunch rival of Sheikh Hasina. The charges against her led to her boycotting the polls in 2014. The AL appears close to striking a crippling blow to the BNP having the portends of ushering in a new era in that country’s politics.

This is particularly so as the BNP and the AL have shared the reins of power more or less equally in that country. Discriminating Dhaka watchers believe the BNP is itself to blame for sowing the seeds leading to its political harakiri, thanks to its misgovernance from 2001 to 2006. During this period, the Begum Zia government earned the notorious distinction of being adjudged the most corrupt country in the world for five years in a row by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

This period witnessed unprecedented violence against the country’s minority community and the political opposition. For this, the son of Begum Zia, Tarique Rahman, and then Home minister L Babar, among others are currently on trial for murder. The BNP’s misrule came to an end when a military backed caretaker government seized power on January 11, 2007.

Since then, the BNP has spent eleven years in political wilderness. The 2014 general elections witnessed the unsuccessful BNP boycott which is seen as the turning point in Bangladesh politics. The AL is coming to the end of its term in January 2019 and is expected to hold the elections before that.

The AL might want the BNP to boycott elections thereby giving the second consecutive walkover leading to its registration being cancelled in keeping with the election laws of that country.

At the same time, the international community including India, being the most important neighbour of Bangladesh and AL’s major ally, has indicated a second election without BNP’s participation would lack the legitimacy of the democratic process. Therefore, it might be in the wider interest of the AL that a weakened BNP participates in the election.

At its full strength with BNP’s Khaleda being in the vanguard has created problems. Thus, the BNP with a sidelined Begum Zia is bound to be a less frightening or alarming prospect.

Over the last four years, the AL has steadily gained in strength while the BNP has suffered because of its inner contradictions. The repression has been severe with many BNP leaders being incarcerated and its party organisation virtually in a shambles. With its local leaders largely underground, its ability to mobilise the people has suffered a major setback.

If Begum Zia is not granted leave to appeal her conviction, she will be barred from taking part in the elections. That might well be curtains for the BNP. However, if Begum Zia is allowed to appeal her conviction and get out of jail on bail, she will be able to contest the elections.

The AL believes that Khaleda’s conviction and incarceration will encourage BNP’s partymen to jump ship and make deals making that party’s demolition complete. Putting down Begum Zia sends its own strong signals which can discourage BNP cadres leading to the collapse of the party as an opposition force. The million Dollar question is whether Bangladesh is close to seeing this end game. It is widely believed the BNP, remaining a credible challenger to the AL, appears to be finished.

The inevitable question in such a scenario is can anyone emerge to replace the BNP? If so, what are its implications for the future? That remains to be seen.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator.

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