Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Queenmaker of Bangladesh

TAHMIMA ANAM

Call Bangladesh the land of the resurrected. Here, a dictator can be overthrown, disgraced and imprisoned, and still make a comeback.

More than two decades after being ousted, Hussain Mohammed Ershad is now being called the “Queenmaker.” Thanks to recent political maneuvering, he is in a prime position to tip the scales between the two main contenders in the general election to be held in January: Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, former prime minister, leader of the opposition and Ms. Hasina’s longtime foe.

Mr. Ershad came to power in 1983, as the head of a military-backed government. By late 1990, after nearly a decade without free and fair elections, a massive popular uprising — led by the two most powerful opposition parties, the Awami League (Ms. Hasina’s party) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (Ms. Zia’s) — was putting pressure on Mr. Ershad to step down. His government fell after the army withdrew its support. Within weeks, Mr. Ershad was in jail on corruption charges.

More than 20 years later, Mr. Ershad’s influence is on the rise again. Though Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia once cooperated in the movement to restore democracy, they have become bitter opponents in the intervening years, as power has shifted back and forth between the Awami League and the B.N.P. Now, on the eve of another election, Mr. Ershad is the accidental arbiter in the enduring rivalry between the co-architects of his downfall.

Bangladesh is deeply divided. Ms. Hasina’s record in many areas — development, infrastructure, health care, the trial of war criminals from the 1971 liberation war — boasts important victories, and those go far beyond anything Ms. Zia achieved when she was prime minister, in 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.

But Ms. Hasina’s decision to stand by allegedly corrupt ministers and her consistent repression of her political opponents have damaged her standing. Especially controversial, Ms. Hasina has scrapped the so-called caretaker government that had overseen national elections since Mr. Ershad’s fall. In its place she has appointed a special election-time cabinet formally open to all parties and placed herself at its helm.

Ms. Zia looks even worse. Her last term in office was marred by allegations of corruption (some involving her immediate family), and she reigned over an unprecedented spate of violence by religious extremists, including the Islamic terrorist Bangla Bhai. While in the opposition, Ms. Zia has been obstinately uncooperative. She has boycotted Parliament since losing the election in 2008. Now she is threatening to boycott the January election unless the caretaker framework is reinstated. In the meantime, she has called a series of strikes and demonstrations that have brought the country to a standstill. She has refused to join Ms. Hasina’s interim cabinet.

Mr. Ershad, for his part, has accepted to join the new cabinet. He has also agreed to run in the election, a move that will lend the process the credibility that Ms. Hasina badly wants and Ms. Zia is trying to deny her. And if Ms. Zia does stick to her boycott, the Jatiya Party of Mr. Ershad will likely become the country’s new main opposition party, vastly increasing its current influence.
And so it is that while the two leading ladies of Bangladeshi politics quarrel, Mr. Ershad’s clout is growing. In fact, it is almost tempting to forget the dark spots in his past. Mr. Ershad’s rule is sometimes looked upon as a dictatorship of the benign sort. The 1982 coup that brought him to power was bloodless (conveniently, his predecessor had already been assassinated). And the years of democracy that have followed his downfall have been tainted by so much corruption, cronyism and repression that his regime can seem innocuous by comparison.

But nostalgia underestimates the damage the man did to Bangladesh. Mr. Ershad institutionalized corruption on a large scale, undertaking building projects that enriched him and his cronies. In 1988, his government amended the Constitution, ignoring its foundational secular principles to declare Islam the country’s state religion. The return to politics of this dictator, whose fall was so hard-won, sends a message of impunity.

Democracy in Bangladesh has taken another hit, in other words. Politicians are unaccountable. The electoral process is sketchy. Yes, Bangladeshis have held on to the right to vote, but it is, in effect, the right to vote only for warring factions determined to destroy each other.

A few weeks ago, in a bid to convince her to end the strikes, Ms. Hasina made a telephone call to Ms. Zia. The transcript of the conversation, which was circulated online, reads like a parody.

Ms. Hasina: “We don’t want to quarrel.”

Ms. Zia: “You are quarrelling.”

Ms. Hasina: “You are the only one doing the talking. You are not allowing me to talk.”

Ms. Zia: “Why would I do that? You are asking questions, I am replying.”

Ms. Hasina: “I am not getting a chance to speak.”

Amid that bickering, Ershad doesn’t need to do much talking at all.

Published in The NewYork Times, November 26, 2013

A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 27, 2013, in The International New York Times.

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”