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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2790

Sheikh Hasina up against odds

By Vinod Vedi - Syndicate Features

The question doing rounds in Bangladesh these days is about the political fortunes of Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of founder of the country, ‘Bangabandhu’ Mujibur Rehman. Will she and her Awami League led 15- party alliance win the election? No body has any clue but the general consensus is the odds are not against her despite the entry of poor-man’s banker, Mohammad Yunus, who has floated his own political party after he received the Nobel Prize.

Hasina has managed to her way in respect of two of her demands after her betenoire Khaleda Zia’s term ended and President Iajuddin, who is known as Khaleda’s proxy took over as the caretaker advisor (Prime Minister). Her campaign resulted in a new caretaker advisor and a new chief election commissioner. Her third demand is elections with in six months. But Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former head of Bangladesh central bank, who has taken over as the new caretaker advisor, does not appear to be in any hurry. It remains to be seen whether the country will need to be plunged back into chaos to achieve the demand

For Ahmed the immediate priority appears to be crusade against corruption. He has won endorsement from the much-politicised Bangladesh Army. Several top leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League have been rounded up and their ‘ill-gotten’ wealth confiscated. The new Chief Election Commissioner Dr A.T.M. Shamshul Huda has indicated that elections can only take place after about an year because that is how long it will take to brush up the three laws—the Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972, the Political Party Representation Act, and the Electoral Roll Ordinance. More time may be required if the caretaker government decided to introduce photo identity cards before elections could take place.

Earlier a person convicted for a criminal offence and serving a jail term could stand for elections pending appeal of his or her conviction. Under a new decree, no one convicted of crimes would now be allowed to enter the fray. A welcome move but the problem is most parties in Bangladesh have leaders, big and small, who could fall foul of the amendment. This clause, coupled with disqualifications for corruption could unleash a trend that is bound to unsettle the established political order. In fact, the only ones no one dare raise a finger at would be the Bangladesh Army.

It is not without significance that the Army is leading teams that have arrested more than 100 politicians including a dozen former ministers. Judicial magistrates have been authorised to freeze or attach bank accounts, vehicles and houses of anyone who does not produce a statement indicating the source of wealth. A minimum of three years in jail and fines have been prescribed for the defaulters. Caretaker Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed has issued instructions that the corrupt leaders, land grabbers and their political “godfathers” should be ruthlessly pursued and all “obstacles to democracy” be removed.

A leading US Congressman on a recent visit to Dhaka also spoke against corruption in Bangladesh. “Corruption in Bangladesh is a hindrance to US investments”, he told both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Earlier (before the BNP-appointed Caretaker was forced out by nationwide strikes) the European Union made a harsh comment. It ticked off President Iajuddin’s for the way he had handled the opposition to his rule. The EU also insisted that it would send election monitors five-six weeks prior to the elections as a long-term measure to ensure free and fair elections. Such messages from abroad had the effect of the cards falling favourably for Sheikh Hasina and her coalition.

Hasina is quick to demand that elections be held at an early date but the Election Committee enunciated a caveat that it would be on the basis of the electoral roll prepared in 2001. The catch is that this list has as many as 12.2 million bogus entries and the 2006 list has 14 million fake voters. The irony is that the Awami League chief had earlier demanded cleansing the voters list as the first step to free and fair elections. She believes with some justification that the Begum Khaleda Zia government had padded the rolls to the advantage of her BNP party. Even western observers have voiced these fears.

For India, the situation is particularly worrisome though Delhi will be doing business whoever comes to power in Dhaka. The return of Khaleda Zia will bring with it its own flipside to the bilateral relations. Sheikh Hasina surprised her Indian friends and secular parties at home when she included a fundamentalist Islamic party, Khelafat-e-Majlish, into her coalition. This induction was made just before the January 22 poll date. That poll schedule has since been rescinded. And she has also scrapped that poll tie-up. The alternative to the Begums as of now is Army rule by default. That would be an unmitigated disaster though military rule is not new to Bangladesh.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee walked the tightrope when he went to Dhaka to invite Caretaker Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed to attend the forthcoming Saarc summit in New Delhi. Bangladesh, like Pakistan, is becoming thoroughly fundamentalised and the natural proclivity is to become assertive towards a “Hindu” India.

The fact that Sheikh Hasina should think it politically expedient to forge a tie-up between the Awami League and an Islamist party and agree to the demand that Shariat would be enforced if the alliance was voted to power exposes the deep faultiness in the Bangladesh polity. She would be riding a favourable tide if the elections are held within six months as the banker turned politician Yunus will not be able to put his act together so quickly. That is why she has taken a calculated risk to ask for an early poll timetable knowing full well that the voters’ list is fudged.

All India can do is to keep its fingers crossed.

- Syndicate Features -

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