By: Our Correspondent

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."