With Bangladesh’s next general election due in one year, the ruling Awami League has marginalized the main opposition party whose leaders are mired in court battles, critics and observers said.
Politicians with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) accuse Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government of stifling an atmosphere for free and fair elections in 2019, such as by increasing legal heat on the BNP’s top two leaders. They have been charged in scores of criminal cases ranging from corruption to arson, terrorism, and defamation.
“The cases against our party chief, Khaleda Zia, have been used to intimidate the BNP. Most of our leaders are facing false cases. The opposition in Bangladesh is at bay,” Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP’s standing committee, the party’s highest policy-making body, told BenarNews.
“They do not want us to take part in the next polls. But our leader has made it clear that we will take part in the polls whatever may be the case,” he said.
The BNP also criticized the government for allegedly withholding a permit for the opposition party to stage rallies on Friday marking the fourth anniversary of the last general election, which the BNP boycotted.
“We have sought permission to hold rallies marking the controversial Jan. 5 polls. But the police are yet to give us permission. We are denied the chance to hold public meetings,” Rahman said.
Awami League officials and parliamentarian vehemently deny such criticism, saying the party welcomes the BNP and its chairwoman, Zia, to contest next year’s general election. Polls must be held within 90 days of Jan. 28, 2019, according to Bangladesh’s Election Commission.
“This is totally untrue that we do not want them to take part in the next elections. We want them to. But we will not take any initiative to bring them to the polls. It is their decision whether they will vie for the polls or not,” Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, an organizing secretary of the Awami League, told BenarNews.
The BNP boycotted the 2014 general election in protest of the Awami League’s refusal to allow a neutral caretaker government to run Bangladesh during the voting season as stipulated in a constitutional clause, but which the ruling party abolished ahead of the those polls.
The BNP has since tweaked its position on the issue of the caretaker government. It is demanding that a government not headed by Hasina take over the duties of running the country during the electoral season and that parliament be dissolved before the next general election.
Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at Dhaka University, said the Awami League had consolidated its power by marginalizing the opposition.
“My simple observation is there is no atmosphere for the opposition to expect a free, fair and unbiased parliamentary election,” he told BenarNews.
“Despite all the odds, the BNP wants to take part in the next general election. If they take part in the polls, even under Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League would be in a difficult situation,” Rahman added.
More than 100 combined criminal cases against Zia and her son, Tarique Rahman, the BNP’s No. 2 official and her presumed successor, could impede her path to election in 2019.
Rahman, who lives in exile in London, has been charged in 76 cases. He fled to the Britain in 2008, following his conviction and sentencing to seven years in prison in a money-laundering case.
On New Year’s Day, Bangladeshi prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty against him in two ongoing cases relating to a grenade attack that targeted Prime Minister Hasina in August 2004.
On Jan. 2, authorities in Comilla district issued a warrant for the arrest of Zia and 48 other opposition leaders over an arson charge stemming from a deadly fire-bombing of a bus during anti-government protests in early 2015.
On Jan. 5, 2015, her party led protests and strikes to mark the first anniversary of the 2014 election, but nearly 200 people were killed in violence that ensued over the following weeks.
“We must contest the next general election. None can stop us from taking part in the election,” Zia, who is facing assorted charges in 34 cases, told a gathering in Dhaka on Tuesday.
On Thursday, she appeared at a Dhaka court for a hearing in one of the cases brought against her, in which she has been charged with corruption.
“The Awami League has been using the cases against Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman to put the BNP under pressure. They do not want us to take part in the polls as they know that they must not come to power if a free and fair election takes place,” Asaduzzaman Ripon, an adviser to Zia, told BenarNews.
Iqbalur Rahim, a parliamentary whip of the ruling party, denied Ripon’s allegations.
“The corruption cases against Khaleda Zia were filed by the caretaker government in 2007. The cases against Tarique Rahman are also filed by the caretaker government. The Awami League has not done anything,” he told Benar.
Zia and her bitter rival, Hasina, both served as prime minister three times.
This week, Hasina reshuffled her cabinet in its first major realignment since the last general election in 2014.
Her government did not explain the reason for the Jan. 2 reshuffle, which saw cabinet members change portfolios and three members added.
One analyst said Hasina overhauled her cabinet to consolidate her standing with the 2019 elections in mind.
“National elections are upcoming. There are political calculations in this cabinet reshuffling. If new ministers can show good performance before the elections, then it may create a positive impact on voters,” M. Hafizuddin, an adviser to a former caretaker government, told BenarNews.