The release from jail on September 11 of the former Bangladesh Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, by the military-backed caretaker government — which now wants to create a congenial atmosphere for parliamentary elections scheduled for December — has been widely seen as a welcome step. The chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who was in jail for a year, got bail in all the graft cases.
Khaleda Zia’s release followed the release of Sheikh Hasina, another ex-Prime Minister and chief of the Bangladesh Awami League (AL), in June. The ex-premiers, who led the two major streams of politics, were arrested after the caretaker government came to power in January 2007 and launched an anti-corruption drive. Nearly 200 high-profile politicians — mainly from the two major political parties, many of them widely perceived to be corrupt — were jailed.
While many politicians were synonymous with crime and corruption, particularly during the coalition rule of Khaleda Zia (2001-2006), the much-hyped anti-corruption drive was mired in controversy though it got overwhelming support from the people initially.
It is widely believed that the caretaker government which desperately wanted the two key leaders to remain out of politics — or at least wanted them to go into exile — has shifted its stance, possibly after failing to negate their indomitable influence in politics. Many political observers therefore see this shift as a U-turn made by the military-backed government, while some would like to see it as a ‘new turn’ to get a certain agenda pursued in a different manner.
Politically, both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are now more powerful than before. Hasina was in the United States till June undergoing medical treatment. The situation is relatively favourable to Khaleda because her release from jail has unified the party. With the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami playing a crucial role, a move is under way to further strengthen the four-party alliance with the coming elections in view.
However, according to insiders, the release of Sheikh Hasina in June and Khaleda Zia now followed intense negotiations leading to agreements between them and the present regime.
One of the key government negotiators, commerce adviser Hussain Zillur Rahman, said the moves were aimed to restore a healthy political atmosphere and create a level playing field so that elections could be held in December with the full participation of all political parties.
Doubts have been expressed in many quarters over the ultimate fate of the ‘anti-corruption drive’ and the political reform agenda as the majority of ‘suspected corrupt politicians’ were released on bail and have returned to politics. Many legal experts who appreciated the anti-graft drive are of the view that there was little reason to jail Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and even fewer reasons for their prolonged incarceration. It has been alleged that the caretaker government did not lead the anti-graft drive judiciously.
The large-scale release of ‘corrupt suspects’ by the High Court is a lesson for the interim authority that the ‘political reforms’ it desperately wanted enforced was not supported by the people. There is also a lesson for the politicians. The last 20-month phase has taught both the BNP and the Awami League that their internal reforms should take priority.
Independent media reports quoting authoritative sources reported that the release of Khaleda Zia and her elder son Tarique Rahman through seemingly transparent legal procedures was actually part of a deal with the government . Under Khaleda Zia, the BNP would join the current dialogue with the Election Commission and the government, participate in parliamentary elections and keep Rahman out of the polls by sending him abroad for treatment. Ms. Khaleda had a meeting with four government advisers and telephonic talks with the head of the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed.
It is believed that the release of Ms Hasina and Ms Khaleda basically removes two of the major hurdles to normalisation of politics. The caretaker government now seems to be all praise for the ‘contributions’ of the two key leaders in the country’s political history, and has said it would organise a face-to-face meeting between Ms Hasina and Ms Khaleda for the good of the nation.
Whatever their constitutional authority, the present caretaker administration essentially constitutes a rescue team, although many of its actions invited controversy as it seemed to have assumed and enforced the authority of an elected government. It has hardly managed affairs efficiently — the unstoppable price hike dented its popular approval, while it failed to manage the economy and business and ensure investments.
Now that Ms Khaleda and Ms Hasina are free, Bangladesh will have a new political wind blowing, mainly in the direction of the December elections. Indications are that the pro-Islamic groups are likely to rally round Ms Khaleda with a greater level of enthusiasm than before. In the absence of Sheikh Hasina who is yet to announce her return from the U.S., the ‘pro-liberation’ camp led by the Awami League may find the going tough.
7 months ago