Taming the Strong Women of Bangladesh

After nearly a generation of desperate and debilitating democracy dominated by two women who hated each other enough to all but paralyze the country, Bangladesh’s army is directing a series wrenching political changes.

In one of the world's poorest nations, the army has jailed hundreds of tainted politicians, while a caretaker government has suspended elections and, for the time being at least, put on hiatus the political careers of the two strongwomen of Bengali politics, Sheikh Hasina Wajid of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party.

Although irritation is rising among Bangladesh's intelligentsia over the restrictions, probably the immediate answer from the disillusioned citizens of this thickly populated country of 140 million is that they are better off without their flawed democracy for now. The caretaker government, which ousted both Hasina and Khaleda, is certain to remain in Dhaka for more than a year. Earlier this week, the election commission and the generals now running the country agreed that getting an election off before the end of 2008 would be tight.

"The common people's reaction to these kinds of developments remains positive as they got frustrated with the corruption and crimes initiated by the politicians for their own benefit," a Dhaka-based political commentator told Asia Sentinel. He declined to be named, citing stiff restrictions placed on political comment by the military. "It was waiting to happen. The extreme rivalry between the BNP and AL had put the country in today's shape, where we have nowhere to go."

It remains to be seen, however, whether either Hasina or Khaleda can be removed permanently from politics. As exhausted as many people seem to be from Bangladesh’s politics of turmoil, both women have their strong backers. After being briefly barred from returning to the country after a private visit to the United States, Hasina was back Monday to a rapturous greeting from supporters who defied a ban on demonstrations. She also received a welcome-home message from her arch-rival Khaleda, raising the vague possibility that the two foes might make common cause long enough to reverse the ban on politics.

The story began last October as the country was preparing for yet another round of marathon political jousting between Khaleda, who had resigned as prime minister and head of the BNP after five years in office, in order to take on her mortal enemy, Hasina, at the polls.

At the beginning of 2007 everything was seemingly on track, when the country became embroiled in what are known here as "the usual political disturbances." The Bangladeshi constitution makes it mandatory to hand over power to an interim government within three months of national elections. All of the country's political parties were in battle mode.

Hasina then attacked the advisor to the interim government, Iajuddin Ahmed, the country's president, alleging that he was prejudiced in favor of BNP, making a fair election impossible. The advisor to the interim government normally directs all important exercises of the administration and the attack was debilitating.

The situation worsened when BNP and Awami League supporters engaged in violent clashes that resulted in the killing of nearly 45 people and the wounding of hundreds of others. The sudden rise in hostility prompted Iajuddin to impose emergency rule on January 11, postponing the polls. He immediately resigned and installed a new caretaker government on January 12 under the leadership of an economist, Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official.

That kicked things into high gear. Although the caretaker government was required to hold "free and fair" polls within a stipulated period, Fakhruddin, head of the country's top bank, said he intended to nurture a 'liberal and modern democratic Bangladesh,' and took action against corrupt politicians and those with criminal backgrounds.

Hundreds of political leaders representing all major political parties were rounded up under a 'crusade against the crime and corruption', backed by the Bangladesh Army. The big catch was Tarique Rahman, Khaleda's eldest son. A senior BNP official and Khaleda's projected successor, Rahman was the most powerful man in the government during her term as prime minister. He was arrested March 8 inside Zia's residence in the capital and is still behind bars in Dhaka.

With the arrest of the crooked politicians, rumors spread that the caretaker government wanted to trade exile for Khaleda in return for Tarique Rahman's release. Local media also reported that Khaleda was under house arrest. Meanwhile, another of Khaleda's sons -- Arafat Rahman -- was arrested although he was later released. It stimulated more speculation that Khaleda was negotiating for a graceful exit from the country – with her sons – to settle in Saudi Arabia. However, in a recent development, the Dhaka High Court stepped in and gave the government four weeks to explain “why the government action about Khaleda Zia's movement was not illegal.”

Sheikh Hasina, whose father led the country’s independence drive in 1971, also came under attack. She was on a non-state visit to the United States when she was charged with the murder of five people during the political violence in October last year and also extortion of 30 million Bangladeshi taka (US$433,400) from a businessman when she was in power in 1998.

Hasina denied the charges and confirmed that she would return. When she arrived, she was conciliatory. ''It's great that I have returned to my country," Hasina told reporters in the airport. She called the government restrictions on her “a mistake”, but she did not forget to admire the “good gesture” shown by the government in allowing her to come home.

Acting Awami League president Zillur Rahman has meanwhile appealed to the government not to harass Hasina. He also urged the caretaker government to withdraw the ban on indoor political rallies and to prepare for general elections soon.

Slowly but steadily, resentment against the caretaker government is also increasing. "Bangladesh has slipped into the control of an autocratic military regime," claimed another senior Dhaka based journalist, who also is afraid to be named. (Bangladesh media is currently under strict observation from the government).

"The Army-backed government has still banned all kinds of political activities, including protests, in the country," he said. "Moreover, it has declared that the crackdown on political leaders would continue. But the government has probably forgotten the primary duty to sail the country for polls as early as possible."

Fakhruddin Ahmed says that his caretaker government is committed to early elections. In an interview with Time Asia, Ahmed said the election commission would set an election date, emphasizing, however, that before polls can take place there is a need "to carry out fundamental reforms of the political party systems, including registration and accountability to the people."

Fakhruddin, at the same time, acknowledged his government's backing from the military. "It's called upon to aid the civil administration in times of emergency, natural or man-made. That's not unknown in many countries," he argued.

His comment was echoed by Bangladesh Army chief Lt-General Moeen U Ahmed. At a press briefing in Dhaka recently, he declared that "Bangladesh's military has no intention to grab power. The army will not be in politics. It is only assisting the caretaker government. When the need will be over, it will return to barracks."

The military, he added, is under pressure to take power, but won’t. "We want the democratic system to continue, but we cannot compromise on corruption."