Khaleda with baggage of cases

Reaz Ahmad
Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Election conundrum – To be or not to be, that is the question


Within a year or so over 100 million voters in Bangladesh will be seeking to exercise their right to franchise in a fashion that they have long been eagerly waiting. What they are looking forward to is essentially a participatory election to the national parliament and a more functional democracy.


Last time Bangladesh saw a participatory national election was December 29, 2008. The9th version of the Jatiya Sangsad polls was held under a military-aided quasi-caretaker government. That was a special situation; a creation of the country’s then failing politics. Messing up with the hitherto established norms of caretaker formation and spoiling of the electoral roll through inclusion of fictitious namesand omission of genuine voters’ names had made the political situation all the more complicated. Subsequent street violence involving activists belonging to the opposing political campsmade prospect of a fair election totally bleak. The rest is history. Two top leaders of the country, who head two of the country’s biggest political parties, had to endure jail life in makeshift prisons, face cases filed against them. In exchange, then eligible 80 million voters got for the first time photo-voter IDs and a fairly held election.


Awami League, the party which had an emphatic return to the power, courtesy December 29, 2008 election held under the 1/11 government, has been ruling the country since. It got the people’s mandate to run the country a year after the global economic meltdown. It was definitely not best of the time to rekindle hope among the people, who were yet to come into term after the triple shocks of a devastating flood, world financial crises and democracy deficit. However, AL did reasonably well in bringing back the institutions into democratic political gear after a two-year lapse and tried best building public confidence in political system.


But as they say good days are short-lived. Our democratic adherence since the post-Ershad days continued to go through a hell lot of experimentations. Parties kept changing stances on holding polls under caretaker administration. While in government they prefer holding elections under the incumbent but while in the opposition they wage movement demanding for a fair poll under caretaker arrangement.


Election conundrum


In Bangladesh suspense over next general election is a never-ending process. Each time election season comes, it comes with all sorts of drama, suspense, at times violence and a hell lot of questions over how “it’s going to be held, who’ll be supervising, what sort of a government will be there during the poll time (elected or caretaker) and what’s the formation of the Election Commission?”

Paths of AL and BNP started moving towards completely reverse directions since mid-2011 when the 9th parliament chose to bring in the 15th amendment of the constitution thereby, abolishing the caretaker system. JS actually picked up from a higher court verdict and AL exploited it well to make people believe that what the national parliament had done was just a natural follow-up of the court’s verdict. Initially there was a small window of opportunity within that verdict that two more national polls could be held under caretaker arrangement provided the Sangsad so desired. But in the full judgment that window of opportunity was no more there. Eventually that triggered events and movements leading BNP finally to abstain from the last parliamentary polls held in January 5, 2014. BNP and its political alliances’ boycott made AL desperate to bring a clearly indecisive Ershad on board courtesy Rowshan Ershad. That paid off both them very well. Rawshan became Leader of the House and the former dictator a special envoy.


But definitely it didn’t go down well with BNP. Neither the party could thwart the 2014 polls, nor could it wage a people’s movement in its favour. Much to the AL’s credit that with a record 154 MPs getting elected uncontested, the party could still toe a fine line of balancing democracy with development. But how long it would continue to be able to do so?


Khaleda with a baggage of cases


It has been long nine years since Bangladesh witnessed a participatory parliamentary poll. As the 10thassembly of the national parliament first sat on 29 January 2014 the next elections for the Bangladesh Parliament are to be held no later than 28 January 2019. Now that the one-time absentee BNP looks like does not want to repeat boycotting the JS polls, question comes to the fore is whether the party’s chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia would be able to contest the election. Khaleda, who has served Bangladesh thrice as its prime minister in the past, is carrying a big baggage of cases filed against her, her son – Tarique Rahman – arguably the second most important  leader after her in the party, and also against party secretary general and other leaders of different tiers. Danger is that if trial of any of the scores of graft and other cases, filed against her, is completed and verdict is pronounced in her disfavor, Khaleda risks falling into a legal tangle where she may no longer qualify as a candidate in the 11th JS election.


BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia has been accused in five graft cases and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) filed all of the five cases both during the military-backed emergency government from 2007 to 2008 and also during AL-rule in 2011. All the cases are under trial now. She is also accused in dozens of cases on charges of sabotage during the current and immediate-past AL governments.Of the cases, the trials of Khaleda in Zia Orphanage Trust and Zia Charitable Trust graft cases are at an advanced stage and Tarique Rahman is also accused in one of these two cases. Her eldest son Tarique is also accused in the 21 August grenade attack case, trial process of which is now also at advanced stage. Moreover, the High Court in 2016 cancelled the verdict of a trial court that had acquitted Tarique of a money-laundering case and sentenced him to seven years in jail. The BNP senior vice-chairman never did file an appeal nor appeared to the court and chose to remain absconding.


Political analysts, however, note that given the current pace of trial proceedings any conviction, if at all any, would not come by very soon. And even Khaleda is convicted anytime soon by any trial court, the process of appeals has to be exhausted too and that would definitely take time. So, they see, a very slim chance of her getting disqualified for next polls owning to any legal process.


People always say law will take its own course. But when it comes to political bigwigs the course can get longer as important people have got important considers – they can always choose to make pleas asking for hearing date deferrals for one reason or the other – be it a hartal or staying abroad. But again as people say law catches up with ‘lawbreakers’ one day. Question is how long it takes in a democracy where election time returns in every five years.


During one of her court appearances in October this year, BNP chairperson expressed her doubt on whether she would get justice in connection with the Zia Orphanage and Zia Charitable Trust corruption cases. She accused the ruling quarter of interfering in the judiciary. She claimed both of these graft cases as false and motivated and dubbed the allegations brought against her as fictional and fabricated. As law abiding citizens having faith in the country’s judiciary we will expect with full sincerity that all our leaders come out clean if they had not indulged into any wrongdoings. This general expectation is equally applicable in the case of Khaleda Zia too. In fact there are recent instances where High Court stayed the trial proceedings of as many as 23 vandalism and arson cases filed against the BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.


Another non-participatory election will serve none


What happened centring the last parliamentary polls (Jan 5, 2014) should not be repeated. An election with participation deficit is of nobody’s best interest. Holding the 11th parliamentary polls keeping any major stakeholders away or boycotting the same by any sizeable party would serve nobody’s interest. Above all the voters, the most important stakeholder in democracy, majority of whom had got no chance to cast vote in 10th JS polls, would not take it gracefully.


After serving office thrice since its return to power in 1996, Awami League must have gained confidence, political acumen and governance experience. Continuity in power for two successive terms since 2008 has given it immense scope to show some visible developmental works and earn public trust. If AL now goes for a repeat of 2014 it’ll surely spoil the broth for the party that always do boasts for its role in 1971 and also for restoration of democracy. AL would not find it easy to convince, for the second consecutive times, the country’s development partners about the outcome of another non-participatory election. Why should a party having long legacy of waging many successful democratic movements drift itself away from democracy.


BNP will ill-afford skipping another parliamentary poll. A subsequent second time poll boycott may cost BNP its registration as a political party with the Election Commission. Remaining out of power for a decade BNP is in disarray in many respects. It’s not in best of its shape with hundreds of BNP leaders and activists facing volumes of cases and running away from their bases. The party badly requires some sorts of consolidation and what’s more befitting that fanfare and competitions in polls to reenergize BNP rank and file. Any repetition of poll boycott decision would face strong opposition from within. BNP grassroots would not definitely like it.


Issue of Khaleda’s poll-participation eligibility apart, there are other contentions matters too centring the next JS election and sooner or later the parties have to seek solutions to those as well to make it happen this time. The yet-to-be sorted issues include; who would be in charge of poll-time government, what are the processes the Election Commission would follow in delimiting the parliamentary jurisdictions, with what mandates and power the members of the armed forces would be deployed during the election.


(The writer is Execujtive Editor of United News of Bangladesh)

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