Commentary: Bangladesh - The Khaleda Zia Verdict and its Political Implications
Dr Madhumita Srivastava Balaji

In a judicial verdict of unprecedented political import, on February 8, 2018, a Special Court in Bangladesh sentenced the former Prime Minister and leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Begum Khaleda Zia, to a five-year jail term, in a case of embezzlement of funds to the tune of US $ 252,000 meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust. To add to her and the party’s woes, in the same case, the Court slapped a 10 year sentences on her son and political heir apparent, Tarique Rahman, currently living in exile in the UK. Others found guilty and sentenced in the same graft case were former parliamentarian Quazi Salimul Haq, former Principal Secretary to Khaleda Zia, Kamaluddin Siddique, Zia’s nephew Mominur Rahman and a prominent pro-BNP businessman Sharfuddin Ahmed. This is the first time in the history of Bangladesh where a former Prime Minister has been awarded prison sentence in a criminal case.

Begum Zia and others will of course seek judicial redress by applying for bail and filing appeal in the High Court. If granted bail, she would be able to participate in the electoral process and also contest the crucial parliamentary elections, due by the end of this year or very early next year. However, if she is unable to secure bail and appeal against her conviction, she would have to miss out on the crucial elections to the Jatiyo Sagsad (National Parliament) and perhaps much more in political terms.

Either ways, the February 8 verdict will impact the 2018/19 elections as it can have several political implications for not only Begum Zia and the BNP but also for the country. The conviction is likely to weigh heavily on her party’s fortunes in the elections. It may be mentioned here that this is only the beginning of Zia’s judicial encounters. She has some 30 other cases of graft and misappropriation of funds pending against her at different stages. A number of BNP leaders and workers are also facing cases of financial irregularities and other criminal acts.

Politically, her decision to boycott the 2014 elections has proved to be a disaster for the party. Since, the boycott, BNP has been in a state of utter confusion, suffering continuous erosion in its organization and poor electoral showing at successive local and municipal levels.

The ruling Awami League (AL) did not make things easy for the BNP by carrying out a relentless campaign against them and their political ally, the Jama’at-e-Islami, on every issue. AL skillfully and effectively used the political opportunity by scoring repeated landslide victories in local and municipal level elections, thereby turning the future in its favour in Bangladesh’s political landscape. The present government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to follow a ’no mercy approach’. It has gone down heavily on the opposition BNP and its ally, the Jamaat, for their dubious role during the tragic events of 1971. Following this policy, the Awami League has strengthened its position while BNP has been kept busy in dealing with its internal shortcomings.

Begum Zia’s incarceration in a corruption case will have significant impact on the country’s politics both in the short and long term perspectives. In the short term, the BNP will be faced with leadership vacuum. In line with the sub-continental approach, Khaleda Zia has quickly nominated her son Tarique to take charge of the party even though he too has been convicted and sentenced to 10 year prison term, and has been living in exile in the UK. Obviously, he will have difficulties in running the party through remote control. Begum Zia, if she remains confined to the prison, will to a limited extent, be accessible for consultation. But with the general elections due shortly, the party will need more intense engagement of the leadership. The Begum and Tarique will have to nominate a working president if the former is not granted bail by the courts.

Also in the short term perspective, the BNP leadership will have to effectively counter the general perception among the people that the party leadership has been found guilty of corruption. The verdict has sent an important message to the common man that even the most powerful of politicians can be tried and punished for corruption. Even though the trial was highly politicized as a BNP vs. AL or the fight of the two Begums, the ruling party has managed to push the opposition on the defensive and gain an upper hand.

In the medium and long term perspectives, as mentioned earlier, the upcoming elections to constitute the 11th Jatiyo Sangsad (Parliament) must be completed by January 28, 2019. It may be mentioned here that the Jatiyo Sangsad consists of 350 members; 300 being directly elected under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system and the remaining 50 seats being reserved for women candidates nominated by the parties under Proportional Representation mechanism. In the current parliament, due to BNP’s boycott, AL controls 234 seats followed by Ershad’s Jatiyo Party (34), Worker’s Party (6), Independents (15) and others (11).

Therefore, one thing is abundantly clear; the BNP just cannot afford to boycott the elections once again. Having already spent five years in the opposition and the next five years out of the parliament through boycott, it has no option but to contest the elections this time around to maintain its political relevance, or else it may soon start withering away. It must also be cognizant of the fact that its long tested ally, the Jama’at, has already been proscribed and cannot contest the election under its own banner and name. Therefore, with partly decimated leadership, the BNP, with both Khaleda and Tarique out of action, has to devise an effective alternate strategy to try to bounce back, taking advantage of the anti-incumbency factor of 10 years against the AL.

The BNP leadership has to play its cards carefully. Post-verdict, it has done well by shunning violence and the politics of bandhs and hartals. It has called for peaceful demonstrations and expects the government not to prevent it from holding its political programmes peacefully.

As far as India is concerned, it would like to continue with its principled policy of non-interference and neutrality in the electoral politics of Bangladesh. India would like the democratic process in Bangladesh to continue to get strengthened through a participative process involving all the stakeholders.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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