Afsan Chowdhury,

Sentencing BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia to 5 years in jail triggers a fresh confrontational phase in Bangladesh politics, already deluged by hostility. It also makes the election, scheduled for December 2018, considerably uncertain about inclusive participation. Bangladesh’s experience with electoral politics has been miserable since birth and with the Opposition Chief behind bars, optimism about a peaceful 2018 voting is low.

Any court case against the leader of the main Opposition party is always about politics. But a jailed BNP leader as Dhaka’s social media is loudly saying is stronger than one outside.

The merit of the case is a matter for lawyers but the implications are for all. She will spend the weekend in jail. If her bail petition is accepted she will be out pending appeal to a higher court. Whether a 5 years long jail sentence makes her ineligible for electoral candidature will be decided by the higher courts later but for the moment the 9-10 months to the December polls like a long uneasy time away making 2018 a year of uncertainty.

What is at stake for the BNP and AL?

The ruling party Awami League claims that no matter what, elections will be held and BNP says no matter what it will join the polls. Point is if both are interested, why does the fight arise?

However, AL may not want the same as a BNP — free political environment would be welcomed by the AL so theoretically speaking, it would prefer a boycotting BNP. Of course, that is not happening automatically. So, the next best thing would be to make elections rough for the BNP to participate in which is natural for it to do. Many think, that the sentencing is part of that.

BNP boycotted the 2014 polls in what was a suicidal political decision that has cost it much and its unlikely to try that again. In 2014, young cadres in the party who are close to BNP’s exiled leader Tariq Zia — Khaleda Zia’s son and now party chief in the absence of his mother – advocated polls rejection under the belief that the people were ready for an insurrection against the AL but which never came. The last 4 years in wilderness has been chastening for it and BNP is committed to polls for its survival because if it misses two consecutive elections it will lose electoral registration. So, BNP is serious when it says it wants to go to polls.

However, AL may not want the same as a BNP — free political environment would be welcomed by the AL so theoretically speaking, it would prefer a boycotting BNP. Of course, that is not happening automatically. So, the next best thing would be to make elections rough for the BNP to participate in which is natural for it to do. Many think, that the sentencing is part of that.

Few believe that the case is part of the fight against corruption of bigwigs as many of them are quite happily around doing more of the same. Any court case against the leader of the main Opposition party is always about politics. But a jailed BNP leader as Dhaka’s social media is loudly saying is stronger than one outside. It’s true that corruption is a vague charge and particularly so, in a culture where the major politicians are always deemed to be “never guilty as charged”. Jail sentence doesn’t tarnish a political image. So, the loss is not as much as some think.

So why go after Khaleda Zia if the gains are uncertain? Keeping a person busy with court cases not political activities could be one. And a jailed Khaleda Zia could expose the party to the dangers of splitting which the AL would want very much.

Will BNP split if Khaleda is in jail?

If Khaleda’s bail is declined, the chances of a section of the party breaking away and forming a new BNP exists. If that happens, the chances of a breakaway BNP being recognized as the official BNP will push Khaleda and her mainstream BNP out of the political scene, at least in 2018.

But is a jail sentence enough to weaken Khaleda Zia one is not sure. Although widely expected, BNP, was disciplined and largely non-violent after the verdict was announced. This has made BNP look good. Meanwhile AL party cadres held rallies and motorbike processions despite a ban which didn’t make them look better.

BNP has split before as did AL but it’s the mainstream that has survived for both but the strategy could be short term aimed at the gains of December 2018. If a weak “BNP” participates in the elections an AL can easily romp home. That would be a huge win because the AL is strong as a party but its popularity is less now and like any long term incumbent is up for some serious competition in the polls. Having a weak opponent would be great.

But is a jail sentence enough to weaken Khaleda Zia one is not sure. Although widely expected, BNP, was disciplined and largely non-violent after the verdict was announced. This has made BNP look good. Meanwhile AL party cadres held rallies and motorbike processions despite a ban which didn’t make them look better. Party cadres took charge of the street along with the police which shows that law enforcement duties are being shared by political and officials in some form or other. Political chess moves are on.

The stakes are high for both. As both sides walk into the conflict space, a quality election in 2018 seems less likely. What the consequences of a violent road to election is unclear at the moment but politics in Bangladesh remains as weak as it was all these years.