Bangladesh’s Imperilled Democracy

Bangladesh's Imperilled Democracy

By: Uzair Salman

Implications of Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment

On February 08, a court in Bangladesh sentenced the former prime minister and head of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia to five years in jail after she was found guilty of stealing $252,000 from the Zia Orphanage Trust – a trust created for an orphanage – a charge she had dismissed as “politically motivated”. Her son, Tarique Rahman, and four others were also jailed for 10 years each at the end of a case that lasted nearly 10 years. Her conviction was no surprise given the political theatrics from the ruling party and the opposition. Khaleda Zia’s conviction has added an impetus to international concerns for transparency in governance, rule of law and democratic process in Bangladesh.


The chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and former prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia has been sent to jail for five years. The verdict is unique in the history of the country where a former prime minister has been given a high prison sentence for misappropriating a Trust’s funds. It would not be remiss to mention that once before a former president was also sent to jail on charges of corruption for a lesser term for misappropriating nearly five times more that amount.

Although BNP showed its strong resentment to the verdict and termed it politically motivated, it did not call any strike. However, the more worrying thing for Bangladeshis as well as the international community is that Khaleda’s imprisonment will not allow her to contest the general elections in Bangladesh slated for December 2018. The BNP had refused to contest the last general elections in 2013 as well, thereby allowing Hasina to rule the roost for the last five years. But this time the BNP was all set to contest and it was being believed that it would reap the advantage of Hasina’s falling popularity.

In fact, it was also being whispered – loudly – in Dhaka that if elections were to be held in Bangladesh today, Hasina’s Awami League would lose. Bangladeshis say they are fed up with the aggrandizement of power in Hasina’s hands, even though they acknowledge in the same breath that Khaleda Zia’s time in power was really a proxy for her son Tarique Rahman, who had unleashed a reign of terror in Bangladesh when his mother was prime minister from 2001-2006.

Hasina-Khaleda Rivalry

Sheikh Hasina Wajid and Khaleda Zia, both related to former national leaders – Khaleda is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, the 7th President of Bangladesh whereas Sheikh Hasina Wazed is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first president of Bangladesh – have dominated Bangladesh politics for more than two decades, and have nursed a long, bitter rivalry.

They are known as the ‘Battling Begums’ for their rivalry that has poisoned Bangladeshi politics for nearly three decades.

Since 1991, when Khaleda first became prime minister, the office has largely swung back and forth between the two warring women. Both have also laid claim to aspects of Bangladesh’s independence.

According to a report in The Economist, both Mujib and Zia grew dictatorial in power and had resorted to violence to settle scores. This tendency is now seen in Hasina and Zia as well. “When Hasina came to power for the second time, in 2009, she took a more aggressive approach, going after her enemies and settling scores… Hasina has outsmarted Zia, who shows signs of frailty,” the report said.

“When Sheikh Hasina refused to give way to a caretaker government before the general election of 2014, the BNP played into her hands by boycotting the poll and encouraging violence,” the report added.

Terming Zia’s conviction as natural consequences of her past deeds, Hasina accused her arch-rival of looting public property and burning to death over 500 people in a “demonstration of extreme brutality”. She said that in 2015, Khaleda declared she would not return home without toppling the Awami League government and to make this happen, she opted for brutal violence sitting in her office.

Hasina was referring to the protracted blockade enforced by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its crucial ally Jamaat-e-Islami coinciding with the 2014 elections demanding polls under a neutral government. The BNP eventually boycotted the elections and became the Opposition having no representation in Parliament.

Hasina’s Awami League came to power for a second consecutive term after a bloody parliamentary election that was boycotted by Khaleda’s party.

Such is their rivalry that in 2013, Khaleda chose to celebrate her birthday on 15 August, to mark the occasion on which Hasina lost almost her whole family in a bloody military coup.

A BBC report suggests that Khaleda deliberately chose to celebrate her birthday when the rest of Bangladesh observes the death anniversary of Hasina’s father.

Khaleda also accused Hasina of “selling out” Bangladesh to India in order to stay in power, during the latter’s visit to India where she met Narendra Modi.

On the other hand, Hasina inaugurated a new cantonment at Patuakhali in the south-western coastal district which she named after herself, the ‘Sheikh Hasina Cantonment’.

Analysis on the Verdict

The verdict certainly has serious implications, not only for the BNP but also for Bangladesh’s politics. These implications might be on two counts: impact on Khaleda Zia as the chairperson of a party who has been in its sole command for the last 37 years, and its bearing on the BNP as a party; and the likely effects of the imprisonment of Khaleda on the country’s politics.

The responsibility of running the party has devolved on her son Tarique Rahman, who has been out of the country for more than 10 years, quite like a matter of inheritance and right of primogeniture. Legal aspects aside, the practical aspect of it is quite unique. One wonders what impact an acting party chief would have on the party, and how his decision-making will be impacted, being detached from his ward by more than six thousand miles. Can a political leader be an absentee landlord of a party? And there are dissensions too in the BNP. There are reservations not only about Tarique’s leadership qualities but also about his running the party. His personal rectitude is also a matter of concern to many party leaders. Can he garner enough support from other senior leaders in Dhaka to be effective enough?

As regards the impact on the politics of Bangladesh, the sentencing has come in an election year, when one major party has already launched its election campaign while another has been thrown into disarray. What will be the nature of election should the BNP decide to boycott it?

It would be a miscalculation for the AL to write off the BNP or Khaleda Zia. Even after nearly a decade out of power, and virtual political wilderness, the BNP commands substantial support. The efforts of the police to put impediments along the way to prevent large gatherings that day as well as its preparations in the name of security the day before the judgement, betray AL’s wariness about BNP’s political clout.

It may do well for the ruling party to understand that Khaleda Zia in jail may turn out to be more powerful than out of it. If the AL is sincere about holding a participatory election, it must ensure a level playing field. And that can be possible only if all the agencies are freed of government control and allowed to act without hindrance.

A Glance at the Zia Orphanage
Trust Graft Case

Case filed: July 3, 2008
Total accused: 6
Charges framed: March 19, 2014
Trial started: September 22, 2014
Total prosecution witnesses: 32
Defence witnesses: 3
Closing arguments: December 20, 2017 to January 25, 2018
Number of days of proceedings: 236 days
Highest punishment: Life term

According to the case document, then (1991-1996) Prime Minister Khaleda Zia opened an account named “Prime Minister’s Orphanage Trust” with the Ramna branch of Sonali Bank. On June 9, 1991, an amount of $126,000 was deposited in the account from United Saudi Commercial Bank, but the money was not spent for any orphanage between June 9, 1991, and September 5, 1993. The money was transferred to Zia Orphanage Trust, a private fund – The Zia Orphanage Trust was set up by Khaleda’s two sons and a nephew – and according to the prosecution the accused misappropriated the money by transferring the amount from a public fund to a private one. The defence counsels, however, argued that the Emir of Kuwait had sent $126,000 to a private fund to build an orphanage in memory of late president Ziaur Rahman. But the prosecution submitted “forged documents” to make the private fund appear as a public fund under the Prime Minister’s Office only to implicate and harass Khaleda for “political purposes”.

Democracy in Bangladesh

Free and fair elections have always been promised in Bangladesh, but were never delivered. Intimidation, brute force, voting booth capture, and often outright rigging featured in elections for much of the period of Bangladesh’s so-called democratic existence. In some instances, Bangladeshi government invited (during general elections) international groups to monitor our elections, but their movement was often restricted or limited to places that could present a more favourable view of the process. The last parliamentary elections were so unique that more than half the electoral constituencies did not require any elections, avoiding the need for any external monitoring.

It must be understood that a democracy does not survive by simply rhetoric or by keeping the appearance of democracy. The dilemma of many developing-country democracies is how to keep up the appearance of democracy by not yielding to other requirements of rule of law and transparency. The elections are not free or fair when a candidate can be thwarted at will by one means or another, fair or foul. And, that’s exactly what has happened with Khaleda Zia’s conviction and imprisonment.

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