A Tale of Two Begums
For 25 years Bangladesh politics has been swinging between Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party

Bangladesh politics is in turmoil following the conviction of Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia on charges of corruption. BNP protesters took to the streets after the court judgement was announced. But after an initial round of violent protests, including an attack and vandalizing of the Bangladesh High Commission in London, BNP leaders decided to hold peaceful protests throughout the country. 

The five-year rigorous imprisonment handed down to Khaleda Zia in a corruption case is a major blow to the BNP for it would exclude her from standing in the general elections due later this year. Under Bangladeshi law anyone sentenced to prison for more than two years is not eligible to contest. However, if Khaleda Zia is given leave to file an appeal, it should allow her to contest while the appeal is pending.

The charges had been filed against the BNP leader by the army backed caretaker government. The Awami League government allowed the case to remain in court though several other cases filed against ruling party leaders and others were withdrawn. Khaleda Zia and the BNP have claimed that the charges were part of a plot to keep her and her family out of politics. The court also sentenced five other accused, including Khaleda Zia’s son and BNP’s acting chairperson Tarique Rahman, to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine. Tarique Rahman, who is also accused of murder, lives in exile in London.

The current term of the National Assembly comes to an end in January 2019, and general elections have to be held before that date. Another election without the main opposition party would once again raise the question of the fairness of the elections. The BNP had boycotted the 2014 general elections.

Political power in Bangladesh has oscillated between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the past 25 years after the country came out of military rule. The Bangladesh constitution provided for elections to be held under a neutral caretaker government, but the two main parties had a major disagreement on the choice of a caretaker government in 2006. The BNP won the 2001 elections, but in January 2007, a caretaker government backed by the army took over following violent protests over the selection of the caretaker government. The caretaker government jailed both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina on corruption charges. It stayed on for two years till elections were finally held in 2008, which were won by the Awami League.

Later Sheikh Hasina’s government amended the constitution to remove the provision for a caretaker government to prevent a repeat of the military takeover as happened in 2007. However, in 2014, the BNP boycotted the elections over the government’s refusal to appoint a caretaker government. The elections took place in the midst of violent protests and were strongly criticised by the western governments including the US, which refused to send election observers. India had accepted the election result despite the low turnout in the polls as had other Asian countries. It took Washington and other western capitals many months before they dropped their reservations and began dealing with the government in Dhaka.

Boycotting the election proved to be a tactical mistake for the BNP; it not only remained out of power for another term, but also had no representation in Parliament. The BNP has lost much of its support base in the decade out of power, though it is still not a spent force. The BNP cannot be dismissed too lightly; it may not win the elections but it remains a political factor in Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina’s image has been flagging and the Awami League is likely to face the effect of anti-incumbency after two terms in the government. Bangladesh’s economy has been doing well; its GDP growth rate for 2016 was just over 7 percent. Its garment exports have grown sharply to make Bangladesh among the world’s top garment exporters.

There are expectations within the Awami League that the BNP would split after the court verdict over the leadership issue. Tarique Rahman has been named the acting president of BNP but that situation cannot last as he was also convicted in the same case. There is also the possibility of rupture within the 20-party alliance headed by the BNP as some smaller parties try to distance themselves from the corruption charges.

In Bangladesh’s fractious politics with the bitterness between the two main political groups, preventing Khaleda Zia from contesting would add to the impression of Awami League authoritarianism. A one-sided election would undermine democracy in Bangladesh and raise doubts about the legitimacy of the Awami League regime. Awami League members are exultant over the BNP leader’s incarceration but it would be in Bangladesh’s interest that there is a credible opposition participation in the next general elections.

Shubha Singh