The Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the last general elections in 2014, a move many leaders now see as a political mistake, enabling an easy win for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party.
Now with the BNP’s leader Khaleda Zia in jail over corruption charges, the Bangladeshi political landscape is filled with parity and questions.
The Bangladesh Supreme Court’s March 19 order staying the bail plea of Zia has deepened the country’s political crisis ahead of the general elections due in December.
Zia, 72, was sentenced to five years imprisonment on February 8 on charges of embezzling funds intended for an orphanage.
However, experts are divided on whether Zia can participate in the December election with the law stipulating that anyone convicted for at least two years cannot contest the election for the next five years.
The BNP has asked for a caretaker government to be installed to ensure that the crucial polls are free and fair, but the ruling government insists on remaining in power, in line with the country’s Constitution.
This year’s contest is likely to be fierce with the AL multiplying efforts to keep out the BNP and its Islamist allies led by the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Islamist extremism has been on the rise in Bangladesh. In 2016, the Islamic State group claimed an attack on a cafe in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter in which 20 hostages, including 18 foreigners, were killed. The government rejected the claim, saying the militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was responsible.
Of late, Bangladesh has been in news for giving refuge to more than a million Muslim Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being in 1971, when the two parts of Pakistan – East and West – split after a war.
Bangladesh saw military rule for 15 years and though democracy was restored in 1990, the political scene remains volatile. For decades, political power in the country has been more or less evenly divided between the AL and the BNP.
The BNP was founded in 1978 by former President Ziaur Rahman, Zia’s husband, who was assassinated after a military coup in 1981. After the military coup led by army chief H M Ershad in 1981, Zia took charge and batted for democracy and scored a win over her arch rival Hasina in the country’s first free election in 1991.
The country has witnessed a long-drawn feud between the two women, who alternated power for 15 years until January 2007.
Both women emerged from political dynasties. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president who was assassinated in 1975.
However, Zia’s terms between 1991 and 1996 and from 2001 to 2006 were marred by corruption allegations.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections, demanding polls under a non-partisan interim administration. Its demands haven’t changed still – keeping it out of power for 11 years.
The Daily Star quoted the country’s Chief Election Commissioner, KM Nurul Huda, saying the national election will not be inclusive without the participation of the BNP.
“The BNP is a big political party. How is it possible to hold an inclusive election without its participation? The election will not be participatory without the BNP. I had said it earlier and I am saying it again,” he said.