The drama surrounding the sentencing and incarceration of Begum Zia came finally to an end on Thursday. Her conviction was no surprise given the political theatrics from both sides -- the ruling party and the opposition -- that kept the media and people at large occupied during the last few weeks.
The surprise, however, came from the opposition leader herself, her apparent acquiescence and acceptance of the sentencing without a firework of defiant speeches addressing either the court or her supporters outside.
Instead, she quietly left for her next abode in the company of police, while her heavily upset party leaders sobbed outside the court premises lamenting her sentencing.
This writing is not about Begum Zia’s conviction or on its appropriateness. This is also not to give voice to the critics who question our law’s apparent failure to hold accountable and punish scores of others who embezzled billions in public funds in the past, but spent enormous resources to prosecute and convict an ex-prime minister for a relatively smaller amount.
This is also not to question the political motivation of the timing of the sentencing since it is just a few months away from the next general elections. Misappropriation of funds is a crime, the amount is irrelevant.
The main reason for this writing is the international concern for transparency in governance, rule of law, and democratic process in the country. This concern has been expressed every time Bangladesh has had elections, because in those periods the government failed to demonstrate due process for those who participate in the elections, whether they were electioneering or casting votes.
People on both sides of the spectrum, voters on one side and the candidates on the other, found them often in a battlefield. Free and fair elections were promised, but were never delivered. Intimidation, brute force, voting booth capture, and often outright rigging featured in our elections for much of the period of our so-called democratic existence.
In some instances, our 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
Fair or foul
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 latter two become very important for free and fair elections. Because, without rule of law and transparency in governance, the participants in the democratic process cannot be sure the elections will be fair and free. The elections are not free or fair when a candidate can be thwarted at will by one means or another, fair or foul.
The elections are not fair when voters are intimidated or stopped from voting, and they have no recourse to law. The entire process becomes murky or highly questionable when the authorities that are supposed to help the election participants deny them their rightful access to law.
For people in authority or power, it is tempting to cling to it, and they find it difficult to let it go when people turn against them in an election. A short history of our country gives us enough instances where a ruling party tried to preserve its hold by manipulating the elections.
Manipulation of elections in the traditional manner described earlier is therefore not new. What is new, however, is the emasculation of the opposition in a manner that deprives it of its strength and fighting power.
Already, the districts are flooded with police and para-military forces to counter opposition protests. To add to this, workers of the government party and opposition are ready to battle each other
We have seen evidence of such proactive depopulation of opposition in some African, Middle Eastern, or even East Asian countries in the past.
In some cases, the leaders of opposition have been tried, imprisoned, or even exiled on charges of treason, corruption, or morality (such as Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia).
In many cases, such maneuvers worked, leading to the continuance of the ruling party for years. These countries held elections, but every election returned the sitting president or head of government to power.
On the one hand, such political manoeuvering helped the country grow economically, but on the other hand, concentration of power in one person or one party led to disintegration of the country and breeding of a virulent opposition that ultimately led to the fall of the leader and destruction of the country’s economy.
Only future can tell to what length these protests and preventive actions will go. But if the past is any guide, we can only say that “we have seen the future, and it looks more and more like our past.”
For the interest of the nation
Begum Zia may be quietly lodged in jail now, but her party and her supporters, who are by no means a small band, will not be so quiet, judging from the near riotous conduct on the day of the judgment.
Her party has already announced a series of protests covering the entire country. From the government’s side, it seems it will not be simply watching these demonstrations, but meeting these toe-to-toe. Already, the districts are flooded with police and para-military forces to counter opposition protests. To add to this, workers of the government party and opposition are ready to battle each other.
A stone thrown cannot be retrieved, but a political move can be retracted.
Begum Zia’s conviction may have been based on evidence that proved to the court her guilt. But it is possible that an appeal may be more favourable.
We do not know how the government will react to such an appeal. But this gives an opportunity for both parties to ponder over their own stands and review them in the country’s interest.
Internationally, Begum Zia’s sentencing in a case that has been hanging for over 10 years may be interpreted as aimed at shutting the main opposition from participation in the next elections. This may not be an unreasonable interpretation, given the one-sided elections of 2015.
What the international community does not want to see is another controversial election. We hope that this incarceration does not lead to another bitter duel between the parties, but gives both parties an opportunity to agree on a course for inclusive elections with acceptable concessions for each other.
Our country has come a long way to progress and economic development. It is necessary that we have political stability to sustain this level or go higher. Shutting opposition from participation in election is definitely not the right way to sustain our claim to respect democracy.
A way can be found out of this impasse if there is still goodwill in the government and opposition.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.