Bangladesh’s Caretaker Government Stays its Course


With Bangladesh’s two warring former prime ministers behind bars indefinitely by order of the country’s no-nonsense caretaker government, both the president and the military-backed government of the impoverished country appear to be riding out a growing crisis of legitimacy.

Everybody’s answer is a general election, which is not expected much before the end of 2008. So far, the country’s 140 million citizens are going along with that answer, apparently assured that the caretaker government will turn over power to an elected government sometime before the end of next year.

In the meantime, Begum Khaleda Zia, the former Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, has been in jail since September 3, only a few meters away from her virulent foe, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, head of the Awami League, who was jailed on July 16. Both were arrested on charges of extortion and corruption, leading many political observers to joke that the caretaker government did extraordinary work by arresting both women.

The government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, has arrested dozens of politicians from both parties on corruption charges in a crackdown that has extended down to the provincial level. That has put at least a temporary stop to the rivalry between the two women and their political parties, which have staged a decade-long squabble for power that has often descended into chaotic violence, leaving the country to drift as a fundamentalist Islamic presence continues to grow.

After Khaleda’s five-year term of office ended last October, mistrust between the two parties led to political paralysis in which January elections were cancelled.

Khaleda was picked up earlier this week by security forces along with her younger son, Arafat Rahman, from their residence in Dhaka. Both mother and son were charged with corruption that took place during her regime. After the Dhaka court rejected her bail petition, Khaleda was sent to a makeshift jail near the Parliament complex, or Jatiya Sangsad. It was the first time she had been arrested and jailed since her entry to politics in 1983. Her eldest son, Tarique Rahman, who had been recognized as her heir in the BNP, has been in jail since his March 7 arrest on corruption charges.

Khaleda thus becomes a neighbor to her political enemy. Hasina has been confined not far away in official quarters meant for the deputy speaker of the parliament.

“You can guess, hardly 30 meters separate both the buildings housing the two former prime ministers," marvelled a Bengali journalist. Both, he said, have been provided the same facilities, including access to state-owned television and a few daily newspapers.

The caretaker government, which has been in power since January 12, has become a target for civil libertarians. The government witnessed massive protests by student groups in the third week of August. A series of violent rallies began at Dhaka University in defiance of a countrywide state of emergency. It soon spread to different regions, compelling the government to impose curfews in at least six major cities, including Dhaka.

Ultimately, the government acceded to demands that an army encampment on the campus be withdrawn, although a number of students and teachers were detained. Amnesty International called on the government to investigate reports of excessive use of force by security personnel during the three days of student unrest, leaving the government in retreat temporarily.

"Violent student riots demanding an end to emergency rule, restoration of democracy and return of the military to the barracks has left Bangladesh's military-backed emergency government facing its first major challenge since taking office in January," said Saleem Samad, a Bangladeshi exile. “The military leaders are riding a tiger and they may not have any other alternative but to impose absolute military rule to abort the political crisis.”

The crisis is taking its toll on President Iajuddin Ahmed also. Iajuddin’s full five-year term expired on September 5. He would have been replaced by the parliament, if the general election had taken place last January. Now he must remain in office because only the parliament can replace him.

"It has becomes a peculiar situation in Bangladesh. At this moment, we don't have a parliament to elect a new president. Hence, unless there is formed a parliament, no president can be elected," said a political analyst based in Dhaka. “The absence of an elected Jatiya Sangsad and the continuation of the emergency have paved the way for Iajuddin to extend his term indefinitely,” he joked.

But most seem to be going along with the caretaker government, perhaps because the government has not changed the proposed election date for late next year. The Bangladesh army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed has repeatedly said his forces would extend all possible help to the Election Commission to prepare the voter list and national identity cards, necessary for a credible election.

"We assure you, we will accomplish the task with absolute professionalism," the army chief told local reporters.

"With all the uncertainties in the political sphere, we hope that the poll schedule will not be postponed. We are expecting a free and fair election next year," said a Dhaka based journalist from The New Nation, an English-language daily. "Nobody knows what will happen exactly in Bangladesh politics tomorrow. But if polls are awaiting by December 2008, everything seems to be all right."

In the meantime, Khaleda and Hasina, at each others’ throats for more than a decade, can only watch the events unfold on government television.