On February 8; Bangladesh’s former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was sent to jail being convicted in a graft case. The Dhaka court has awarded the 73-year-old BNP party Chairperson a 5-year imprisonment for a mishandling of $250,000 of an orphanage Trust. The country’s incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sounds presumptuously victorious asking ‘where is she (Khaleda) now’. She should rejoice as her arch-rival’s chance to contest in the upcoming national elections will be the least likely, hence another easy walk way to power for another 5-year term.
Bangladeshis are worried about this ongoing political impasse as it looms shutting the check and balance in the country’s politics. Despite democratic governance functions on check and balance within the relational matrix of Legislature, Judiciary, Executive and the Free Press; that is not the case for Bangladesh. The country’s balance has been experienced through a magic 5-year term; if Khaleda is for this term; the following term is Hasina’s sure-shot. When this cycle is not in function, the unhappy returns are violence, blockade, rights violations and many more.
Common Bangladeshis are pretty much aware that corruption will continue, ruling party people will be nouveau riche by all licit- illicit means, natural disasters will fall in every season while human rights, rule of law or good governance- will remain fancy phrases on the ground politics in the country. Given that, the people continue to thrive, cross the ocean, despite fears to be drowned; to have a decent-indecent job in a far-away land; continue and manage business and even attend work schedules despite horrendously hazardous working condition. That is a classic, exceptional capacity of resilience of acquiescing to the fate. So how they manage the political balance? Generally, by altering the power parties in five- years. When this is disrupted, they have a genuine ground to be worried.
Their fear is legitimate as politics is almost a zero-sum game for Bangladesh. The axiom say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; Bangladeshis know if one party goes to power for a second term without alternation, they will take everything for granted.
Fact of the matter is, if this cycle of power is not altered; the power party become reckless and that is the most grounded fear for Bangladeshis as it has day to day implications in their life. Just before the night of Khaleda Zia’s court order, a group of ruling party thugs assaulted a Dhaka University student Ehsan, almost pull out his eyes and left him critically injured. Ehsan’s crime was he asked a ruling party backed ‘student leader’ to return his calculator. The party cadre Omar, along with his fellow comrades, called out Ehsan, blamed that Ehsan takes part with the opposition party student group. The crime justified, so beat Ehasn! Two years ago, at the same dorm of the same university; the ruling party leaders forced another student, Hafizur, to stay out in cold night. Unfortunate Hafizur, son of a poor income family, succumbed to cold. Another student of the same university, Abu Bakar, highest CGPA achiever of his class also son of a day labor; was shot dead during an infight of the ruling party student groups. For incidents like these, legal path is not ideally considered a remedy, for example a Dhaka court found no one guilty for Abu Bakar’s murder. These incidents seem isolated if someone is not familiar with Bangladeshi current. It will take volumes to describe such gross rights violations for each regime. People accept it as day to day reality. They see whoever is in power; Judiciary, Police, Bureaucracy and what not- all belong to the ruling party!
The common people’s approach to this is – “Wait and see for 5 years. The ballot will speak for itself”. And the only fear the ruling party always feel is – “perhaps they might face fall from the throne in the next term!” Hence, the check and balance work in Bangladeshi politics. How does this matrix work- that could be a little more elaborated. Corruption charges were brought against both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina during the emergency government in 2007. After Sheikh Hasina came to power, there is no corruption charge against her now as the ‘court has quashed’ the cases against her. However, why the similar cases against Khaleda Zia are not quashed; Bangladeshi people know who has authority over the court. Very recently Bangladesh’s Chief Justice wanted to go outside the playbook, no wonder why he had to ‘take leave and leave the country’. In fact, during 1991, the BNP won the election and wanted to continue without a fair election in 1996. The Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina won the 1996 election. The following 2001 election was a remarkable victory Khaleda Zia. Following the stint of shadow military government, Sheikh Hasina clinched landslide victory in 2008. Before the 2014 election, all major city elections were taken over by Khaleda Zia’s candidates; looming another victory for her party.
Erosion of the 5-year magic cycle has become the cornerstone political cul-de-sac. The country experienced massive blockades and strikes during the early 90s of which the prime demand was establishing an unbiased interim government, known as Caretaker Government, to oversee the elections. During 2006 and 2007, the interim government was highly debated as it appeared to concoct a second 5-year term for the then ruling party and again the country experienced another wave blockades and incessant strikes. As the interim government was again abolished in 2011 through a complicated court order and political maneuvers; waves of violence and blockades marked the election times during 2013 and 2014. The incumbent government is in power through a controversial election of which more than half of the parliamentarians were uncontested. The US was ‘disappointed’ over the election and believed it ‘didn’t credibly express the will of the people of Bangladesh’. They called the Bangladesh government to be in dialogue with the opposition to end political impasse and also call all parties, with strongest terms, to refrain from violence.
The political impasse and violence, obviously, didn’t give any substantive progress. Rather, the country’s civic spaces have been extensively compromised over last two decades. The minorities have been targeted, free speeches have been hacked and perhaps the most blatant offshoot is expansion of rooms for extreme views and ideologies while massive human rights violations have become normalized. Perhaps The Economist was right predicting the ongoing, apparent ‘one party dictatorship’ through ‘destruction of the opposition BNP before the elections of 2019’. These are no way optimistic signs for the most densely populated and one of the worst climate-hit countries of the world.