Updated at 11:28 a.m. ET on 2018-11-29
The deadline to file nomination papers for Bangladesh’s upcoming parliamentary elections expired Wednesday, with longtime opposition leader Khaleda Zia sidelined and unable to compete because of a series of legal rulings against her.
Her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) officially filed papers Wednesday to nominate the three-time ex-prime minister as a candidate for a few seats, although Supreme Court rulings this week effectively disqualified the jailed leader from the Dec. 30 polls.
On Tuesday, five senior politicians from her party who were also convicted on corruption charges lost their petition before the court to allow them to contest the elections. Anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison was ineligible to seek office, the court ruled.
The next day, another bench upheld the ruling against one of the five. The rulings did not name Zia but covered her.
“The constitution stipulates that anyone convicted for two years cannot contest the polls. So, Khaleda Zia cannot vie in the next parliament election,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Zia has been behind bars since Feb. 8 at the old Dhaka jail, where she is its lone inmate. The 73-year-old whose health is said to be deteriorating, faces at least five years in prison for her February and October convictions on corruption charges.
Wednesday’s ruling did not sit well with BNP leaders.
“We reject this verdict. This verdict reflected the desire of the government,” BNP secretary-general Mira Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told reporters.
He alleged that the verdict was in line with a plot by the ruling Awami League party to keep Zia off the ballot.
Meanwhile, Kamal Hossain, the man who has emerged as the potential leader of an opposition drive to oust Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, did not file a nominating petition with the Election Commission on Wednesday.
Hossain founded the National United Front coalition earlier this year, bringing together the BNP and a group of centrist parties to challenge Hasina’s grip on power. Hossain, 81, is a former law minister and a political protégé of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father and the founding leader of Bangladesh.
“I do believe the real danger, the real danger about having an authoritarian government like the present one, god forbids if it survives the next election, many of us will not be able to remain in the country, I mean I know many will have to just leave the country,” Hossain told Reuters news service earlier this week.
“So that commitment to democracy is there, I believe those who are aspiring autocrats don’t realize how deep the democracy commitment is there in the blood of our people.”
BNP, which has commanded more than 30 percent of the popular vote in previous contested elections, boycotted the January 2014 vote in protest of Awami’s refusal to cede the reins of government to a neutral caretaker administration during the campaign season.
“There have been other critical elections in the past also in similar circumstances where attempts have been made to undermine democracy and we revived democracy through elections,” Hossain told Reuters.
“But this time it’s critical because what has happened in the last five years is unprecedented, we’ve never had a government which has been around for five years without elections.”
Zia’s nomination papers
On Wednesday, BNP officials filed nominating petitions for Zia in three constituencies. The party has fielded back-up candidates for all three seats if Zia’s petitions are rejected, BNP spokesman Shayrul Kabir Khan said.
Zia’s son and expected heir apparent, Tarqiue Rahman, who has been exiled in London since 2008 and has been convicted of corruption charges with his mother, along with his wife, Zobaida Rahman, did not file petitions to run in the upcoming election.
The election commission has made no decision on Zia’s petitions.
“We have yet to get the court order. But what we can say is we will work in line with the order of the court,” Asaduzzaman Arzu, a spokesman for the commission, told BenarNews.
Former Election Commissioner Sakhawat Hossain told BenarNews that it was required to receive petitions from any person.
“During scrutiny of the nomination papers, the election commission will examine eligibility of every candidate. If the court order reaches the commission, then the nomination papers of the candidates convicted for more than two years will be rejected,” he said.
On Dec. 30 voters will go to the polls to elect 300 members of parliament while another 50 seats will be reserved for women who will be appointed by MPs.
Zia’s nemesis, Hasina, is seeking a record fourth term as prime minister.
As many 3,056 nomination petitions had been turned in as of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, the last day for candidates to file required paperwork.
“But the final number may increase a little bit,” commission Secretary Helal Uddin told reporters.