The sacking of a President

Print edition : July 06, 2002

What are Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's motives in making the country's President resign and in putting her son in a powerful post in her party?

THE events of the third week of June in Bangladesh may be a significant pointer to the direction of the politics in the country. The founding secretary-general and second in command in the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Prof. A.Q.M. Badruddouza Chowdhury, was unceremoniously removed as the country's President. A day later, Tareq Rahman, the 35-year-old son of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, was formally appointed joint secretary-general 1 of the BNP. A few days earlier, the Chief of the Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Harun-Ar-Rashid, was compulsorily retired although he had one and a half years of his tenure left.

Former President A.Q.M. Badruddouza Chowdhury.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

Political analysts see these developments as part of a plan by Khaleda Zia and her advisers vis-a-vis the party and the country's overall politics. Khaleda Zia's eight-month-old coalition government includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's most organised religious fundamentalist party and she may well be seeking to reshape her party by bringing Tareq Rahman into the hierarchy.

Tareq, a businessman, was an ordinary member of the BNP's district wing in Bogra, in northern Bangladesh, the home district of his father Ziaur Rahman, for quite some time. He is also well-known as the man who masterminded the landslide victory of the four-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia in the October 2001 general elections, operating from 'Hawa Bhaban', a modest house in Dhaka's posh Banani area.

Some independent newspapers reported that some senior party leaders are dissatisfied over Tareq's elevation. Several party leaders, however, said the party had accepted the young man for his "ability" to lead the party.

Badruddouza Chowdhury's ouster came as a surprise. There were no indications before the BNP Parliamentary Party's meeting on June 19 and 20 that the 72-year-old leader, who had taken over as President only seven months ago, would be removed. In the presence of Khaleda Zia, who was presiding over the meeting, a group of young parliamentarians charged the President with "betraying" the party's cause by "failing to honour" its founder, General Ziaur Rahman. By not placing a wreath on Zia's grave on his 21st death anniversary on May 30, Chowdhury had tried to be "neutral", they said. They argued that he could not be so because he was the party's nominee to the presidency. They attacked him also for not mentioning Ziaur Rahman as the "proclaimer of independence" in his message to the nation on that day.

The Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. At the BNP Parliamentary Party meeting chaired by her, a group of young parliamentarians charged the then President with "betraying" the party's cause by "failing to honour" its founder General Ziaur Rahman.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

Ziaur Rahman's followers maintain that Rahman, then a Major in the Pakistani Army, was the first to announce Bangladesh's independence from a radio station in 1971. This controversial claim is made by the BNP time and again in an attempt to undermine the Awami League, the party founded by the hero of Bangladesh's freedom struggle, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

At the end of its two-day meeting the Parliamentary Party, by a "unanimous resolution", urged the President "to step down immediately". The party threatened impeachment if he did not oblige. Under the Constitution, a two-thirds majority in Parliament is needed to pass the motion of impeachment against the President. But the BNP did not choose that constitutional route. Tension mounted all day as there was no official world from the President's house, Bhangabhaban, about his decision. Eventually, his son, Mahi B. Chowdhury, an MP of the BNP, told mediapersons late in the night that his father had decided to resign in deference to the party's wish. On June 21, Chowdhury sent his resignation letter to Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar and shifted to his private residence at Baridhara. Sircar, who earlier met the Prime Minister, was made acting President, as provided for in the Constitution. A new President will be elected within three months.

The story did not end there. In a series of media interviews Chowdhury said he was analysing whether or not his ouster was a "conspiracy against the BNP or democracy". He said he could have stayed on as President because "there was no ground for my removal from the office constitutionally". He added: "I have resigned for the sake of the people's interest, and am showing respect to the party." None of Chowdhury's political colleagues of over two decades contacted him in person or over telephone. But his voters - he was an MP and became the first Foreign Minister under Khaleda Zia before becoming the President - and well-wishers flocked to see him.

Khaleda's elder son Tareq Rahman, who has been appointed joint secretary general of the BNP. He is well-known as the man who masterminded the Khaleda-led four-party alliance's victory in the general elections last year.-SHAWKAT KHAN/AFP

Political analysts are divided over the reasons for Chowdhury's removal and the abrupt induction of Tareq Rahman into the powerful party position. One view is that the reasons trotted out for Chowdhury's removal are "just excuses". The main Opposition party, the Awami League, which ended its eight-month-old boycott of Parliament on June 24, saw the development as "a very bad sign for democracy" and alleged a deep-rooted conspiracy. The Awami League has no particular love for Chowdhury, a staunch critic of it. In fact, it blames him for running a communally charged election campaign against it last year. Besides constitutional experts, the entire Opposition termed the President's removal "unconstitutional", as also his resignation on the BNP's demand.

Why was Chowdhury removed? The Opposition believes that the decision was part of Khaleda Zia's plan to revert to the presidential system, which she feels comfortable with. She was forced to accept the parliamentary system under the pressure of a mass upsurge spearheaded by the Awami League after General H. M. Ershad's ouster in 1990. The government's political opponents alleged that by reverting to the presidential system, the ruling combine of rightist and fundamentalist forces wanted to be in a position to influence the next general elections, something that Chowdhury's "neutral attitude" would not allow. Constitutionally, the President will have the actual command under a non-party caretaker government that conducts the elections. The government brushes aside these allegations.

Speculation is also rife as to why Chowdhury, a devout Zia follower, did not go to his leader's grave, particularly when he knew of the consequences. The Constitution states that the President "must act neutrally" and shall be above fear and favour in discharging his responsibility. "How can I act in favour of a party while holding the top constitutional post?" he asked.

Giving a different view on Chowdhury's ouster, some analysts say that he was the victim of a well-thought-out plan by the "fundamentalist lobby", which did not like him. They also feel that other "stalwarts" may follow suit.

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