Elections in Bangladesh

End of an era

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Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and activists during a demonstration in Dhaka in 2013 calling for the scrapping of the International Crimes Tribunal in which top Jamaat leaders were facing charges of war crimes. Photo: A.M. Ahad/AP

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: PTI

Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Photo: Andrew Biraj/REUTERS

March 16, 1971: Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman talking to reporters before leaving for talks with Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan on the future of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Photo: AP

The ruling Awami League-led alliance is confident of securing another term in power and political pundits foresee the end of Khaleda Zia’s political career.

In the post-1975 era following the assassination of the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (popularly known as Bangabandhu), three and a half years after Bangladesh’s independence, Khaleda Zia’s husband, General Ziaur Rahman, then the Deputy Chief of Army Staff, came to the political stage. Some of the chief perpetrators behind Bangabandhu’s killing did acknowledge the “silent role” of Gen. Ziaur Rahman in the assassination plot, but the extent of his involvement remained a mystery.

It was Gen. Ziaur Rahman who first took measures to divert the course of Bangladesh’s history by removing secularism and socialism from the national charter, principles that provided the guiding strength for Bengalis in East Pakistan to wage a successful national war against Pakistan. The military strongman-turned-President also rehabilitated all the key persons who had opposed former East Pakistan’s independence, including those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as associates of Pakistan’s genocidal army during the nine-month-long war in 1971.

After Gen. Ziaur Rahman’s assassination in a military rebellion in 1981, Bangladesh went through another dictatorship, this time under Gen. H.M. Ershad, who ruled the country for over eight years. He followed the basic principles of his predecessor. Khaleda Zia, until then a housewife, took charge of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) founded by her late husband. After Gen. Ershad’s ouster in 1990, Khaleda Zia became the first woman Prime Minister of the country in 1991, defeating the Awami League, which had been reorganised under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina.

The parties led by Sheikh Hasina, the Leader of the Opposition, then launched a strong campaign seeking a constitutional guarantee of a caretaker government to oversee future elections. They boycotted an election held unilaterally by the ruling BNP through which Khaleda Zia became Prime Minister again. But her short-lived government had to concede to the caretaker demand, and the sixth parliament hastily introduced the provision by amending the Constitution. A fresh election was held under the new system, and the Awami League returned to power in 1996, for the first time after being dethroned some 21 years ago.

The Khaleda Zia-led four-party alliance, in which the Jamaat-e-Islami was a dominant player, returned to power again in an election conducted in 2001 under a controversial caretaker government.

Khaleda Zia ended her third term in October 2006, a tenure marked by communal violence and the rise of Islamist militancy. In accordance with the Constitution, a caretaker government would manage a new election, but rioting broke out on the streets of Dhaka owing to a dispute over who would head the caretaker authority.

On January 11, 2007, Army Chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, along with a group of military officers, intervened. A state of emergency was imposed, and the election scheduled for January 22, 2007, was postponed. In what was claimed as a fight against corruption, the military-run government arrested both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia for alleged “bribery” and “corruption”, apart from many leading businessmen, going beyond its mandate.

In December 2008, the military-run government organised a new election in which the Awami League-led Grand Alliance of 14 parties won, securing a two-thirds majority in parliament. Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister again. This parliament annulled the caretaker system and amended the Constitution, bringing harsher provisions against unconstitutional takeover, and restored the fundamental state principles which were removed by Gen. Ziaur Rahman. Sheikh Hasina also won the parliamentary election held on January 5, 2014, which was boycotted and violently opposed by the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Politics from cantonment

Khaleda Zia piously, and perhaps vigorously, pursued the policies of her late husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman. She and her eldest son, Tarique Rahman, by then a key player, made the party increasingly dependent on the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had violently opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

During her tenures as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Opposition, she remained in the Dhaka Cantonment residence of Gen. Ziaur Rahman along with her family members. The house, covering an extensive area, was built as the residence of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army when Khaleda Zia’s husband held that position. After Gen. Ziaur Rahman became the Army Chief and also Bangladesh’s President, he retained the house as his residence.

Following his assassination in 1981, Acting President Justice Abdus Sattar leased the house “for life” to Khaleda Zia. When Gen. H.M. Ershad took over as the Army Chief and Chief Martial Law Administrator, he confirmed this arrangement. Besides, the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman was given another government house in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan area. In 2010, the Sheikh Hasina government cancelled the allotment of the Cantonment house “due to a number of anomalies regarding the allotment within the military zone”. The cantonment authorities later reclaimed the house, forcing Khaleda Zia to quit the Dhaka Cantonment.

Fundamental crisis

Dynastic rivalry has long been a feature of Bangladesh’s political landscape. Since the early 1980s, the country’s politics has been dominated by the bitter rivalry between two major political streams, one led by Khaleda Zia and the other by Sheikh Hasina. Many commentators have tried to identify the cause of Bangladesh’s political crisis as more personal than political, which seems to be a simplistic observation. In reality, the crisis is deeply ideological, and thus linked with the nation’s independence from Pakistan.

While the two distinct political streams have no major differences in economic policies, their stances on the history and spirit of the nation’s liberation war are in sharp contrast to each other. The differences grew stronger when Khaleda Zia aligned herself with the Jamaat–e-Islami, the party that took up arms to defend Pakistan in the war in 1971 and is considered the principal challenger to the secular, pro-liberation entity of Bangladesh. Khaleda Zia has been charged in multiple cases with questioning Bangladesh’s independence history and with insulting the nation’s founding father by celebrating her birthday on a controversial date. In line with Pakistan, she also questioned the recognised number of martyrs in the liberation war.

Khaleda Zia claims August 15 as her birthday, which is a matter of controversy. August 15 is Bangladesh’s National Mourning Day—Mujibur Rahman and most of his immediate family members were killed on this day in 1975. Moreover, none of Khaleda Zia’s governments issued identification documents showing August 15 as her birthday. Her matriculation examination certificate lists her birth date as August 9, 1945, while her marriage certificate lists it as September 5, 1945. Her passport indicates a birth date of August 19, 1945.

Prison term

Since February 8, 2018, the leader of the BNP has been serving a five-year imprisonment term for embezzlement of funds meant for an orphanage trust. (The court granted her bail, but she continues to be in prison in connection with other cases.) In the same case, the court also convicted Tarique Rahman, her fugitive elder son, who was made the acting chairperson of the BNP, and four others of corruption, sentencing each to 10 years in prison.

Khaleda Zia’s party claimed that the case, initiated by the former military-run caretaker government, was politically biased. But her followers have failed to mount any pressure against the government so far. There are no indications that Khaleda Zia will be released from jail any time soon to take up the party’s leadership again. Many observers are also sceptical about her contesting the general elections to be held within the next six months because the Constitution prohibits a convicted person sentenced to over two years in prison from participating in elections. The two successive governments of Sheikh Hasina (2009-2018) have had big successes in bringing huge infrastructural and social development, ensuring a steady growth of the economy.

The two tenures also saw rapid digitalisation, increased power supply, effective anti-militancy drives, the launch of the country’s first commercial satellite, and so on. Sheikh Hasina’s current government has been praised for its handling of the Rohingya crisis that has seen over a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar streaming into the country.

The new era in India-Bangladesh relations ushered in during her two tenures has had a positive and much-needed impact on the understanding between the neighbouring powers, involving the removal of a major Indian security concern. But critics of Sheikh Hasina have flayed her over what they see as “unequal deals” with India and for the failure to strike a deal in the much-delayed Teesta water-sharing arrangement.

Also, there are allegations that the government has failed to ensure adequate space to the opposition. Loan scams in state-owned banks and extra-judicial killings are other areas of criticism. As the Awami League has been in power for two consecutive terms, the anti-incumbency factor cannot be ignored.

However, the secular, pro-liberation alliance led by Sheikh Hasina is confident of securing a third consecutive term. After Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment, Tarique Rahman, who has been living in the United Kingdom since 2008, took over the leadership of the BNP. According to reports, Tarique and his wife and daughter have received indefinite leave to remain (ILR) from the British government, which allows him to stay in the U.K. for an indefinite period of time.

The political arena is currently abuzz with the issue of bringing Tarique back as he is a convicted criminal on the run and facing arrest warrants in a host of criminal cases. The fugitive leader of the BNP is engaging in both political and diplomatic manoeuvres, either by himself or through his advisers.

In such circumstances, many political pundits foresee the end of Khaleda Zia’s political career. But they also say that with the Jamaat and other Islamists as favourite allies, her party might continue to be the major political force against the Awami League in the backdrop of the Left’s failure to emerge as a national alternative.

It is too early to predict if the BNP will contest the upcoming elections without Khaleda Zia, or without a neutral administration that it demanded to conduct polls. The possibility of such an administration is thin. However, with Khaleda Zia behind bars, Tarique out in London and the Jamaat-e–Islami on the run for putting up a challenge against the popular war crimes trials, and also with the Jatiya Party of Gen. Ershad playing a balancing role, political pundits do not foresee a tough challenge in the upcoming elections for the Awami League-led alliance. The scenario may only reverse if the political course changes dramatically.