The return of Khaleda Zia

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

In Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia leads to victory an alliance with a strong flavour of Islamic fundamentalism.

IT was a landslide victory for the four-party alliance led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia in the elections held on October 1. The alliance inflicted a crushing defeat on the Awami League, which has the distinction of having led the war for the liberation of Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) from Pakistan and having sustained the country's secular character. With the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ) as it major partners, the BNP has won a two-thirds majority in the 300-member Parliament, an achievement made earlier only by the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1973. With its massive majority, the BNP-led alliance is in a position to reshape the destiny of the country of 130 million people, an overwhelming majority of them Muslims.

The BNP-led alliance won 202 seats and the Awami League 62. The Islamic Jatiya Oikya Front (IJOF), in which the Jatiya Party of former President Gen. H.M. Ershad is a major constituent, won 14 seats. A Jatiya Party faction led by Anwar Hossain Manju and the Krishak Sramik Jatiya League led by veteran Awami League leader-turned-rebel Abdul Kader Siddique won a seat each. Among the winners are three independents. The results of 16 constituencies have been withheld following complaints of electoral irregularities. Owing to the death of a candidate, the election in one constituency has been countermanded. At least 20 Ministers and several senior leaders of the Awami League were defeated. Among the prominent winners were the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, including Ameer Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, and Mufti Fazlul Haq Aminee, general secretary of the IOJ.

Khaleda Zia was Prime Minister from 1991 to mid-1996. A mass movement demanding elections under a non-party caretaker government led to her resignation. Although the BNP has a majority on its own (with 186 parliamentary seats) this time, Khaleda Zia will lead a coalition government that will include representatives of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan and collaborated with the Pakistani troops' genocide during the Liberation War of 1971. The Jamaat-e-Islami won 16 seats and the IOJ one seat. This is the first time in Bangladesh's electoral history that fundamentalists have won so many seats. It is widely believed that the "reserved votes" of the fundamentalist parties played a vital role in the victory of the BNP-led alliance.

The results belied forecasts that the Awami League and the BNP-led alliance were evenly poised. The magnitude of the victory was reportedly a surprise for the BNP itself.

Awami League president and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected the results, saying that they were "crudely manipulated". Addressing a press conference in Dhaka on October 2, she said: "The people have rejected the results and there is no question of the Awami League accepting it." She compared this round of elections to the "farcical" elections on February 15, 1996. The Opposition boycotted the elections and the new Parliament was dissolved within two months after it was constituted. Sheikh Hasina complained that Justice Latifur Rahman, who led the non-party caretaker government that assumed office on July 15, used his administration blatantly to implement its "blueprint". She alleged that there was an "administrative coup to subvert a popular mandate". The people's right to vote, which was restored after a long-drawn-out struggle against military and "pseudo-democratic" governments, was snatched in a "very crude way", she said.

Asked whether successful Awami League candidates will join Parliament, she said: "Let the time of oath-taking come first, then we'll see what to do." She also indicated that a massive agitation will be launched. There is a possibility of the Awami League candidates who won not taking the oath, thus forcing the incoming government to order fresh elections to the 62 seats won by the party. In that eventuality, the Awami League is expected to launch a countrywide agitation against what it has termed "a naked manipulation and blatant denial of popular mandate".

Sheikh Hasina said that the election outcome would establish a "terrorist government" in Bangladesh. "Those who practise terrorism in the name of religion, those who do not believe in the very independence of Bangladesh, would now form the government," she said.

THERE is no denying the fact that the October 1 exercise to elect the country's eighth Parliament was free. An overwhelming majority of the 75-million-strong electorate participated in it. It was a unique election in that the two major streams of national politics - secularists or liberal democrats and fundamentalists - fought it with all their strength and strategies. There were allegations of booth-capturing, of collaboration of security forces with a particular party, and of voters from the minority community being intimidated. The Opposition alleged that there was "serious manipulation" in the process of compiling and announcing the results. However, some Western and local non-governmental organisations, including the controversial Fair Election Monitoring Alliance (FEMA), have given a clean chit to the government.

A triumphant Khaleda Zia, the wife of former President Gen. Ziaur Rahman, appealed to all political parties, including the Awami League, to join what she termed the fight against "terrorism and corruption". Addressing a press conference on October 2, she appealed for unity, peace and stability. Khaleda's observation that the people had voted against "divisive politics" as they did not want to see a "divided country" is seen as a veiled appeal for unity between the forces of religious fundamentalism and those who stand for secularism, between the opponents of the country's independence from Pakistan and the supporters of a sovereign Bangladesh. But it remains to be seen whether these contradictory streams of national politics can come together to ensure the smooth functioning of the democracy.

Unless the Constitution is amended, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will continue to be regarded as the "Father of the Nation" and the day of his assassination will be observed as the "National Mourning Day". There are fears that the new administration will give scope for the consolidation of forces that want Bangladesh to be an orthodox Islamic republic, negating the concept of secular Bengali nationhood, which was the basis of the Liberation War. If Khaleda Zia's government tries to be neutral, it will invite the wrath of the Bangladeshi variety of the Taliban.

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