February 8 may well dictate the course of the country's politics with the national election round the corner. The verdict on a long-running graft case against the BNP chairperson is awaited with much anticipation and baited breath. Anticipated as much by the BNP and AL, the former hoping she would not be convicted, and the latter, expecting the prosecutors' call for seven years in jail, will have the judge's ears. And the people are waiting with baited breath for what might happen were the BNP chairperson to go to jail.
The focus is on what kind of elections we are going to see in 2018. Will it be a replication of January 5, 2014? Will it be an inclusive election? At least the AL secretary-general thinks that it would be even if the BNP did not participate. One wonders how many of his party men and women would concur with him. Will the BNP repeat the mistake by boycotting the forthcoming election too? And what will their strategy be should the verdict go against them? Would the ruling party continue to deny political space to the opposition? We have seen it shrink more and more in the last five years. In view of this and the fact that there was little tolerance for dissenting voices, the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index showing the country slip down does not surprise us. These are a few questions that are occupying our minds.
Predictably, the BNP is accusing the administration of a predetermined verdict—very sure of the fate of the party chief. BNP sees the trial and the likely conviction as AL strategy to keep the party away from the forthcoming elections, hoping that the incarceration of Khaleda Zia would provoke similar reaction and the re-enactment of violence as the election of 2014 did, and reap the political benefits.
Some people ask whether the AL fears (nay hopes for) a violent reaction from the BNP following the verdict. The home minister has already sent out his message to the BNP that violence would not be tolerated. But why does he take for granted that BNP would go for violence at all?
And that is exactly the reason why the public are waiting with a baited breath. They had had enough of violence after the 2014 election, an exercise which even the prime minster had accepted as being held only for constitutional requirement, implying that a “proper election” would be held to fulfil the democratic requirement. But that never was, and the current tenure of the AL by the end of its term will have existed on what can best be described as a makeshift election, with a unique distinction never attained before by any democratic country—that of the opposition in the parliament being also a part of the government.
People do not want violence anymore and nobody more than the BNP realises that the burning and destruction unleashed in the aftermath of the 2014 elections have been very costly for them politically. And, therefore, one would not be remiss to suggest that violent agitation is something that should be far from the minds of the BNP leadership. Can the BNP afford the AL to reap the benefits of their 2014 agitation?
That being the reality, what sort of election are we likely to have in 2018? Surely, we don't want the kind we saw held in 2014. The election was legal, but whatever is legal is not necessarily moral. It was a case of arm-twisting of some to fall in line, while some found the charm of ministership too hard to resist, and of course there was external persuasion on the Jatiya Party Chairman whose main preoccupation during those uncertain and somewhat tumultuous days was golf—whether on his own volition or otherwise is for people to judge. We are told that he had applied for withdrawal of his nomination, which was not treated with due diligence by the relevant authority. The consequence of all that is he finds himself, perhaps “most unwillingly,” in the role of the PM's special envoy, and his party warming the treasury as well as the opposition benches simultaneously.
The BNP is certainly ruing boycotting the 10th parliamentary election. It fell in the trap and is still licking the wound, sustained more because of what it indulged in following the election than boycotting it. It has restated that without Khaleda Zia the party would not go for elections. And they have made provision of keeping her relevant by amending the constitution so that she would not lose her party membership even if she were convicted. But that does not solve BNP's problem. Should the chairperson be imprisoned, the party will have an absentee landlord giving directions from half the world away. Not a happy situation for the BNP, but would be relished by its opponents.
The BNP boycott may come as a boon for some political parties in the Mohajote. With an inclusive election on a level playing field, and the EC playing its due role, most of them would not pass, which they would otherwise, as in 2014, if the election was of the kind we saw in 2014.
But for the BNP boycotting election is not an option, and neither is violence. That would allow the AL to flaunt the argument that it has done, that it was not their fault that BNP did not participate in the January 5 election. After all, getting elected uncontested is not unheard of. Moreover, the graft case, and the conviction, may play in favour of the BNP.
The sympathy factor cannot be overlooked, and of course there is always the anti-incumbency factor despite the development that the AL has made in several key sectors.
The verdict, whatever it is, will cut both ways for the BNP. Khaleda's conviction will reinforce the BNP accusation of political motivation, if not, of political harassment. And both may go in favour of the BNP.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.