By: Our Correspondent

dhaka

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.