By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
The imprisonment of Bangladeshi opposition leader Khaleda Zia has unified factions within her party and they will support whomever she picks as its flag bearer in an upcoming general election, if she is barred from campaigning, analysts said.
A day after the former three-time prime minister was found guilty and sentenced last week to five years in prison in a graft case, her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) named her son, Tarique Rahman, as its acting chief even though the 53-year-old who lives in exile in London was convicted alongside his mother.
Even if they both end up being disqualified by the courts from serving as the country’s next prime minister – should the opposition win in nationwide polls due in December 2018 or January 2019 – Zia is a unifying figure for the opposition whose conviction has galvanized the BNP and boosted its chances to win Bangladesh’s eleventh general election, according to analysts interviewed by BenarNews.
Zia can nominate any of her trusted leaders to lead the BNP in the next polls, and party leaders are expected to accept the nomination, analysts said.
“Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment and Tarique Rahman’s physical absence would not hurt the party’s electoral participation,” political commentator Nizam Uddin Ahmed told BenarNews. “As Zia is still inside the country, it would not be a problem for her to lead the party from prison.”
In January 2014, when the last general election took place, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won it before the polls opened because the BNP had boycotted the vote.
This time around, according to political analysts, BNP has apparently set its sights on contesting the national parliamentary polls. The party is also rejecting the path of street violence as a strategy as it tries to reorganize its leaders and activists, who had been dormant for years, analysts said.
Opposition leaders said they intended to carry on with ongoing peaceful street protests nationwide over Zia’s conviction. It stemmed from allegations that she embezzled 21 million takas (about U.S. $252,000) from an orphanage trust.
Tarique Rahman, who fled to London in 2008, was convicted in absentia. The court ordered him and four others to each serve 10 years in prison.
The BNP would file two petitions with the High Court – one challenging Zia’s conviction and the other seeking bail for her release, Moudud Ahmed, a member of the party’s standing committee, told reporters over the weekend.
Even if the High Court approves her bail, the bigger question, according to legal experts, is whether Zia – the arch-rival of the incumbent prime minister – can participate in the coming election.
Bangladeshi law bars a person convicted for at least two years from participating in electoral campaigns for the next five years, according to legal experts. If the higher court allows Zia to post bail but upholds her sentence, then she will be disqualified from the polls.
But if the High Court rejects Zia’s petition for bail and Rahman remains abroad, the former prime minister could still nominate any of her trusted leaders to lead the party in the next general election, according to analysts interviewed by BenarNews.
“Whatever may be the conditions, the BNP must contest the polls. They must not give the Awami League a walkover in the next elections,” said Ataur Rahman, a former political science professor at Dhaka University.
Zia, through an aide or relative, can declare the secretary general or any member of the standing committee the next party leader in the polls, he said.
‘Liberal group is dominating now’
Zia’s conviction and subsequent move to appoint her son as acting party chief exposed two factions within the BNP – one composed of liberal members and the other led by conservatives, Shantanu Majumder, an associate political science professor at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
Ataur Rahman agreed with Majumder about the fissure within the party over Rahman’s leadership but, despite that, he predicted the party would stay united under Zia going into the coming electoral season.
“The seniors do not like Tarique while the juniors are in favor,” he said. “But at least for now, the division is dormant.”
With Zia and her son’s absence, the senior tier of the BNP leadership, mostly composed of standing committee members, currently dominate the party, he said.
“Tarique’s followers are junior leaders. So, Tarique must depend on the seniors to play constructive role in the next general elections. If Tarique puts up pressure on the seniors, there could be a breakup of the party,” he said.
The conservative group was in favor of putting pressure on the government while the liberals resisted this, Majumder said.
“This time they refrained from the path of street violence,” he said. “This means that the liberal group is dominating now.”
Majumder said the BNP would be expected to adopt the no-violence strategy until the election.
“The government wants the BNP to resort to street violence,” he said. ‘If they do so, the ruling Awami League activists and the police would crush them, as what happened in the past.”
Violent street clashes took place during the last Bangladeshi parliamentary elections on Jan. 5, 2014, after BNP and its alliance boycotted the polls in protest of the Awami League’s refusal to step aside and allow a neutral caretaker government to lead the country during the electoral season, as stipulated in the country’s constitution.
“They (BNP) know that they have good prospects in the next elections against the incumbent Awami League, which has been in office for around 10 years,” Majumder said. “Therefore, they would continue the peaceful street protests so that more and more leaders and activists dare to assemble in the street on the issue of Zia’s arrest.”
The visible and peaceful demonstrations would publicly project the BNP as a constructive party, he said.
EU lawmakers hope for ‘less confrontation’
Meanwhile on Wednesday, a visiting delegation of European parliamentarians said Zia’s imprisonment posed a major challenge for the BNP.
“I think, however, it is also important for them (BNP) as a political party to concentrate on the election,” Jean Lambert, head of the delegation from the European Parliament, told a news conference in Dhaka. “We would agree that the situation is a difficult one.”
“We hope all parties will actually be willing to stand for election to make sure that the people of Bangladesh have a real choice in the ballot box,” Lambert said. “This is something of real importance for the people.”