The begums are back : Back to square one as the army admits defeat

by Priyo Australia | September 22, 2008 1:34 am

IT IS a spectacular military retreat. “You can smell the burning tyres,” says one Dhaka-based diplomat. Since the army seized power in January 2007 and installed a technocratic interim government, it has tried and failed to end an era of dominance by Bangladesh’s two squabbling former prime minsters, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League.

Yet, after a year in jail on charges of corruption, Bangladesh’s battling begums are back. On September 11th the government freed Mrs Zia on bail. Five days later, it cleared legal hurdles for the return of Sheikh Hasina from America, where she went for medical treatment following her release on parole in June. She is expected back in Bangladesh early next month.

Both leaders still face charges. But prosecutors are unlikely to take action against them without the approval of the government, which is no longer trying to bring their political careers to an end. So, barring an extraordinary upset, one of them will be Bangladesh’s next prime minister.

It is an astonishing volte-face. The begums alternated in power from 1991-2007 and are blamed for the fiercely antagonistic, corrupt politics that led the army to step in. First it tried to exile them and create a “third force” in Bangladeshi politics; then it jailed them and tried to split their parties, hoping that new leaders might emerge. But the begums’ parties are held together by two things: patronage and personality cult. They are unviable without their leaders: hence the BNP’s offer to Mrs Zia this week to lead the party “for life”. She declined.

The good news is that Bangladeshis, for the first time since 2001, will get the chance to elect a government. For once it will be almost impossible to rig the poll. The election commission has purged 12m duplicate, deceased or otherwise bogus names from voter rolls. On September 22nd it will unveil a firm date for the election, long promised for December. And the government is soon to announce steps to lift the 20-month old state of emergency.

It is troubling, however, that Bangladesh’s transition to multiparty democracy has in effect been entrusted to the two politicians who made it unworkable in the first place. They have refused to talk to each other for decades, though the government says it is working on getting them to “sit across the table”.

The price the government had to pay to prevent the parties boycotting the polls is the return of total impunity to Bangladesh. For five years from 2001, Bangladesh led international corruption rankings. But this month the government freed Mrs Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, the main trophy of its anti-corruption drive. The begums’ coteries have been released on bail. It seems likely that the convictions of those jailed for corruption will be overturned.

Some in Dhaka worry that all of this might be too much for the generals to stomach. The army still has to secure its own safe passage into the multiparty era, but has little clout over the resurgent political parties. The two years Western governments quietly granted it to fix the country’s messy politics are drawing to a close. Neither foreign governments nor Bangladeshis want to see its rule extended.

But there are hints that the generals might not leave politics altogether. A banned Islamist militant group, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which the army previously claimed to have crushed, is reported to have threatened members of the emergency government. This week the home ministry gave warning of worsening law and order. The general’s retreat seems inevitable, but such scares suggest it might not be total.

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