Election fever coming

Afsan Chowdhury
Thursday, November 30th, 2017
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BNP leader Khaleda Zia is now being tried in a number of cases. They all deal with corruption and related charges. However, it’s not just the verdicts that hang in the balance. The outcome may have a major impact on the political future of Bangladesh including the elections scheduled to be held in late 2018.


The BNP, which boycotted the 2014 polls was misled into thinking that the public would resist and rebel against the polls and called for agitation. The public didn’t respond and the BNP became a political outsider.


Later, the BNP and Jamaat Islami mounted a street level agitation against the AL but that also failed. In ways, street agitations had been failing regularly since 2008 in general when campus agitation against martial law played a major role in its ending.

In 2013 when the BNP tried to use Hefazot to topple Sk. Hasina, it failed also. So agitation is probably not as potent as it used to be once particularly in the 80s and 90s when BNP was in full cry. Politics is much more complex now than street agitation deciding the future.


The legal battleground


It’s in the legal space where the political battles are being fought now.  The AL has shown that it knows how to be flexible and have used court cases very effectively to mangle its foes. The BNP as an organization was hobbled by many court cases. Meanwhile, Khaleda Zia and her most trusted adviser and son, Tarique Zia are both facing major charges.  Since the party is very dependent on these two persons, one’s exile and another’s jail makes BNP’s political prospects difficult.


The AL has effectively ended any potential of Tarique Zia’s role in Bangladesh politics though his influence in the political arena and party remains. However, Khaleda Zia is there but most people think that without her BNP would flounder. Given the high stakes political poker that is being played, it’s therefore a natural conclusion that a Khaleda in jail would be of great advantage to AL and disable the BNP.


With elections not more than a year away, the legal machinery of the AL may be working full time to see that Khaleda Zia is jailed as soon as possible. But a jailed Khaleda is not such a simple matter which will certainly influence future political stability of Bangladesh as well.


Options for the BNP and the AL


If Khaleda Zia is jailed, what happens to the BNP and by extension its participation in elections remains a critical speculation. It’s rumoured that if Khaleda Zia goes to jail, the BNP will boycott elections. If this rumour is true, it follows that the party is again going to commit itself to a street agitation which it has already experienced and found wanting because agitation doesn’t work as it did before in Bangladesh.  In that case, if AL wants to kill a political bird called the BNP permanently, all it has to do is jail Khaleda Zia.


If BNP doesn’t participate in the polls , it will lose electoral registration, many more of its workers will go to jail, more cases will follow and whatever is left will disappear. There may be a party called BNP, but it may be weaker than a party called the JP. Honestly, speaking, if the AL had a long term plan to rule for a long long time, this should be best option.


On the other hand, if the BNP were to contest the polls even with Khaleda Zia in jail, that would be a great electoral boost to it and it could actually perform much better with a leader in jail. It will be a great emotional card to have during elections and as history has shown, such a scenario works well with voters.


So if I were an AL strategist I would be worried if Khaleda Zia’s trial ended with conviction and jail and the BNP still participated in the polls. So what are the options for the AL then? A good question.


But neither the BNP nor the AL have developed as a political party so they are more like power grids than organizations. Thinking goes one way when in power and another when out. Neither party has shown they have internal capacity to do politics without their supreme leader and that is why it makes the parties nervous if a leader goes missing.


Since policy wise they don’t differ much from each other, it’s the individuals and their history that is used to symbolize the party brand. The result is that a court case may decide the political fate of an election with which the voters have little to do.

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