Thursday, July 26, 2007

Power Play

Bangladesh’s military-backed government is trying to oust two of the nation’s most prominent politicians. They’re not going quietly.

, Special to Newsweek

Rashed Ahmed / AFP-Getty Images

Hasina’s supporters protest her arrest on extortion charges earlier this month

MORE than 25 years ago, Bangladesh's leading politicians persuaded two housewives to enter the public arena. The women spearheaded agitation, forced a military dictator to quit power and restored parliamentary democracy in their impoverished nation. Then the two arch rivals won elections in popular votes and alternated as prime ministers for more than a decade in the predominantly Muslim country. Now their era of dominance may be coming to an ignominious end.

Khaleda Zia, 62, inherited the political legacy of her slain husband, President Gen. Ziaur Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina, 59, that of her assassinated father, the nation's founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both were top contenders for power in Bangladesh’s next election, scheduled for late 2008. But now both face a permanent exile from politics as even their own supporters accuse them of corruption, cronyism and attempts to establish political dynasties. While both have denied the charges, matters took a new turn with last week’s arrest of Hasina on extortion charges. Hasina is also accused of playing a role in four killings allegedly committed by members of her opposition Awami League during a riot last year.

Hasina’s arrest was the latest step by Bangladesh’s interim military-backed government to force her and Zia out of the country. The seven-month-old caretaker regime, which took charge after 30 people were killed in clashes following the end of Zia's five-year term, has cracked down on corruption and pledged to hold credible elections next year. In recent weeks it has detained more than 170 key political leaders, businessmen and public servants on charges of graft and abuse of power. It has also begun encouraging reformists to challenge Zia and Hasina and patronizing groups that established two new political parties. "[Zia and Hasina] delivered nothing to the nation in [the] last 26 years," says Ataur Rahman, a Dhaka University teacher and president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association. "It is time for them to yield to new leadership.

Hasina argues that the charges against her are false and aimed at keeping her from fighting at the polls. "It's a conspiracy to stop me from speaking for the rights of the people," she told a court that rejected her bail petition and sent her to a makeshift sub-jail last week. "I've done nothing wrong." Hasina's arrest has sparked violent protests and brought strong condemnations from lawyers, teachers, political parties and media. Teachers at Dhaka University—hub of the nation’s political activity—wore black badges and boycotted classes Sunday to protest Hasina's arrest and Zia's harassment. Zia, who is not on speaking term with Hasina, has also condemned the arrest and demanded her release.

Meanwhile, many analysts believe that Zia—currently in virtual confinement at her Dhaka Cantonment house—may be the next to be arrested. The government's anticorruption commission has given the two leaders seven days to submit wealth reports detailing their income and assets. Zia’s elder son, Tarique Rahman, an heir apparent during his mother's reign, is already in jail facing a number of corruption charges. And the election commission is drafting laws to disqualify people from seeking votes if they are convicted on corruption charges.

The big question now is how recent developments could affect Bangladeshi politics in the longer term. One fear: that the instability might give rise to Islamic extremism. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a social scientist and chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB), compares the situation with the reign of Iran's Reza Shah Pahlavi, who systematically crushed liberal democrats. "The vacancy was filled slowly but steadily by the extremist religious elements, led by mullahs," notes Shelley. "Towards the end, the Shah had some of the confined nationalist leaders to his aid, but it was too late. The extremists took over."

It is unclear just how much support there is for fundamentalists in Bangladesh. However, there are also fears that the military—which has ruled Bangladesh directly or indirectly for 15 years since it achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971—might consolidate its grip on the country. At present, the generals are simply supporting the civilian caretaker administration, but some Bangladeshis favor setting up a security council to give the military a more formal role in government. "There should be a mechanism so that the military can play its role in policymaking," says Rahman. "There is a need for stabilization of the civil-military relationship." The army chief, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, is brushing aside such speculation—for now, at least. "We have no intention to take power," he says. "We are supporting the caretaker government. The security council is not a priority issue." Nonetheless, the general feels that the nation's constitution must be rewritten to maintain a balance of power between the figurehead president and the all-powerful prime minister.

Most Bangladeshis have applauded the government's drive against corruption, but they also have other priorities. One example: they complain that the government has hardly taken any step to control price hikes. "There are high prices, tight monetary measures and economic uncertainty," says Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, president of the Bangladesh Economic Association. "The government needs to address them quickly on the reality of the grounds, not on any dogma."

There’s also the issue of party politics. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Hasina's Awami League are bitterly divided. Reformists within the two parties—encouraged by the government—both want to loosen the vise of their leaders by introducing term limits that would end their control. "A lot of damage has been done to our politics," says A. H. Mofazzal Karim, Zia's adviser and a leading reformist. "We should start a new chapter which will not allow repetition of evildoings of the past." Others, however, argue that such attempts can be counterproductive. "The reform will not bring positive results for the country if it is forced on political parties," says Akbar Ali Khan, a former adviser to the caretaker government. "Solutions will not come if only the parties are split in the name of reforms."

Zia herself believes the government wants to break up the two parties, accusing it of failing to act against those trying to oust her and Hasina. "[The government] imposed restrictions on our movements, but [it is] not touching those who are speaking about reforms, she charged during a conference call with leaders of her party's Australian branch Saturday night. "Their only agenda is to split the party." Both Zia and Hasina still command large followings, and their opponents have neither the mass appeal nor the charisma of these dominant figures. But given the government's determination to be rid of them, that won't be enough to keep them in the center of the political stage much longer. #

Hassan Shahriar is Executive Editor of Bangladesh's leading newspaper Dainik Ittefaq, also correspondent for Newsweek magazine. He is current International President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). He could be reached

This article was contribute special to Newsweek and published on July 24, 2007
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.