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Can the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Overcome the Leadership Crisis?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 15, 2018

    The sentencing and arrest of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia in the Zia Orphanage Trust corruption case has raised several questions not just about the future of the party but also about the next parliamentary election due towards the end of 2018. In the 632 page verdict, the court has sentenced Zia, the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh, to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Zia’s son, political successor and Vice Chairman and now acting Chairman of the party, Tarique Rahman, has also been sentenced to ten years in prison for embezzling an amount of $ 252,000. The conviction has placed Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s arch political rival in a tight spot ahead of the next elections.

    According to article 66 of the Bangladesh Constitution, any person who has been convicted for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, he/she cannot contest unless a period of five years has elapsed since that person’s release.1 Though the verdict has been given by a lower court, it is likely to affect Zia’s electoral prospects unless a higher court stays the verdict and grants her bail. While the issue of corruption is a major challenge in any democracy, this particular verdict, if upheld by a higher court, will change the political landscape of Bangladesh.

    The BNP has termed the verdict as politically motivated. The Zia Orphanage Trust case was initiated by the military-backed caretaker government of Moeen U Ahmed as a part of the minus-two formula.2 Similar cases were also filed against Sheikh Hasina by the caretaker government in 2008. Unlike the cases filed against Sheikh Hasina, which were dismissed once the Awami League (AL) assumed power, the cases against Zia continued. Apart from this case, Zia faces five other criminal cases, all pending before various courts in the country.

    The BNP is at present in its politically weakest form. Many senior leaders of the party are facing various criminal charges for participation in violent protests during the early months of 2015, which resulted in the death of more than 100 people, who were mostly burnt alive in arson attacks. Khaleda Zia’s conviction is a severe blow to the BNP’s political health even though the party was prepared for the eventuality of such a conviction. The party immediately announced Tarique Rahman as the acting chairman. This decision also showed how Khaleda Zia is reluctant to hand over the top position to other senior leaders within the party despite Tarique Rahman also being convicted and sentenced to ten years in jail in the same case.

    The BNP now has to be managed by a leader who has been living in London since 2008 and not in touch with the ground reality and therefore in no position to mobilise the grass root workers. Tarique Rahman’s poor leadership was very much visible when violent protests were orchestrated at his direction in 2014 and 2015, which ultimately backfired and affected the party’s political fortune. Many countries condemned the BNP’s violent protests and exerted pressure upon it to cut ties with the Jamaat Islami, whose cadres were widely believed to be behind the violent protests.3

    Keeping this in mind, the party took a prudent decision when Begum Zia advised party workers in the aftermath of the verdict not to engage in violence and to protest peacefully. The BNP has been gaining traction with the voters over the last several months, which was evident in the warm public welcome accorded to her in October 2017 when she returned from London after staying there for three months. In the same month, a large number of people also turned out to greet her on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway when she was on her way to visit the Rohingya refugee camps.

    The BNP continues to demand the restoration of a caretaker government. However, it has also expressed its readiness to participate in the next election even if this demand is not fulfilled by the Hasina government. The party’s insistence on a caretaker government is intended to convey to the voters that it has not given up on this demand, the non-fulfilment of which had led it to boycott the 2014 election. BNP does not want to repeat the same mistake that robbed it of a possible victory in 2014. Given that, the call issued by the party General Secretary about not contesting the next elections without Khaleda’s participation may not be politically sustainable.

    Against this backdrop, several questions arise. Will Khaleda Zia allow the BNP to contest the election in the event of her and her son’s disqualification? Are senior BNP leaders willing to forego their chance of winning after five years in the political wilderness by consenting to Zia’s dictum on the party not participating in the election? Will the party survive factionalism in case Begum Zia and Tarique Rahman are disqualified? What form would the BNP’s participation in the next election assume? Though these questions are hypothetical in nature, these are the issues that the BNP needs to ponder while chalking out its strategy for the next election.

    While non participation may not be a viable option, keeping control over the party from jail and London would prove equally challenging. The leadership contestation at the senior levels and the party’s lack of faith in entrusting responsibility on them was very much evident when Mirza Fakhrul was made General Secretary in August 2016, after having remained its acting General Secretary for five years.

    Further, while it’s main ally Jamaat Islami has been de-registered as a political party and many of its cadres have been jailed or fighting criminal cases on charges of arson, the BNP lacks both street power and political will to go ahead without the leadership of Khaleda Zia. The Awami League knows very well that a demoralised BNP will not have the stamina to put up a fight especially when its cadres are in disarray facing criminal charges.

    As of August 2015, the year the BNP intensified its street agitation, 21,680 cases were filed against 403,878 leaders and workers. Of these, 4,331 cases were filed against 158 leaders, including party chairperson Khaleda Zia, while the party’s 12 standing committee members are facing 288 cases. A total of 17,885 BNP workers and leaders are now in jail across the country.4 Moreover, it is difficult to keep the morale of its cadre high when party leaders are not members of Parliament or enjoy any political privileges that would keep the patron-client relationship intact.

    There is thus a chance that internal fault lines within the BNP may be exploited by the Awami League. The dissatisfaction within the BNP came out into the open when it held its party council last year. Many senior party leaders were side lined and those loyal to the leadership were given important positions within the party.

    Democracy in Bangladesh will face serious challenges if the main opposition party does not participate in the election. Political instability will not portend well for Bangladesh and the region. Bangladesh is performing extremely well economically with more than 7 percent growth. It is for instance the second largest exporter of garments in the world. A lot will depend on how BNP manages to salvage its decaying political capital and to what extent the next elections are free and fair.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.