Asia-Pacific, Headlines

BANGLADESH-POLITICS: Love Affair Could Cost Ershad His Party

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, Apr 30 1997 (IPS) - The decision to flaunt a love affair has turned into a political catastrophe for a deposed Bangladesh president, who last year, walked out of prison after six years, his reputation unscathed by corruption charges.

Hussain Mohammed Ershad, who is out on bail, is faced with a revolt by party members and massive media pressure to end a 14- year relationship with a married woman that caused his wife of 40 years to walk out last month.

The Jatiya Party (JP), the party he founded and the third largest in Bangladesh, is on the verge of a split over his decision to go public in early April about his intimacy with Zeenat Mosharraf, a member of Parliament.

Powerful senior party members, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Shah Mozzem Hossain, insist Ershad must step down as party leader following his disclosures of “indecent intimacy and affair”. Both Chowdhury and Ahmed served as premiers under Ershad, who had ruled Bangladesh with an iron hand for nine years after seizing power in 1982 in a bloodless coup.

Ershad had obviously not anticipated public disapproval of his plan to marry Zeenat, the wife of a former party associate, now an opposition lawmaker. That the two are involved has been public knowledge, even if it was not official.

Following the uproar in the press and his party, Ershad sought to back-track out of the political mess and said he has decided to stop seeing Zeenat who would be dismissed from the party. He also said his wife, Rawshan, has agreed to move back to their house in Gulshan, a posh neighbourhood in the Bangladesh capital.

However, there was no pacifying party rebels, who nurture ambitions to control the JP. The three who lost last year’s general election, appear to have been waiting for an opportunity to cut Ershad down to size.

The break-up of the JP is likely to be formalised at its council meeting in May, and the party poised to gain is the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which is ideologically closest to Ershad’s. He has lost many supporters to the BNP, including Zeenat’s husband Mosharraf Hossain.

This is the first time that Ershad’s leadership has been challenged. He remained party chief even after he was deposed by a pro-democracy movement in 1990, arrested and after a quickly- concluded investigation, put in prison on charges of corruption and abuse of power. Winning elections to Parliament that followed his ouster, ensured that his leadership was never in dispute.

Last June, he won all the five seats he contested in the general election that the opposition parties including the JP and the currently ruling Awami League had been demanding for two years. Opposition lawmakers had boycotted Parliament, paralysing the BNP government led by prime minister Khaleda Zia

Now the JP is part of the government, and its Secretary General Anwar Hossain Manju, an Ershad loyalist, was appointed a minister by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. With a strength of 34 members in the 330-seat Parliament, the JP is the king maker in Bangladesh politics, which is dominated by two parties.

In return for their support to her “consensus government”, Prime Minister Hasina allowed the JP to nominate three women supporters as members of Parliament from a quota of 30 seats set aside for women. One of the seats was given to Zeenat by Ershad.

Interestingly, Ershad’s wife is also a member of Parliament, elected from her home district of Mymensingh last year. She was the de-facto leader of her husband’s party while he was in prison. Last week, newspapers reported that the Ershad’s claim to have sorted out their marital problems.

The triumvirate though is not budging from a four-point demand for resolving the present party crisis: Ershad’s resignation as party chairman, immediate convening of the JP council, resignation of secretary general Manju from the cabinet and an assurance from Ershad that he will not talk about his affairs.

Ershad, a dapper 68 years despite his prison years, while confessing to an extra-marital relationship with Zeenat, had said that it was not his fault that women found him attractive. Despite his denials, it is rumoured that the ex-president will marry Zeenat, now that her husband has served her with a divorce notice which will come into effect in 90 days under Islamic law.

There is the problem though of first getting permission from his wife, without whose consent Ershad could find himself in jail for two and a half years and forced to pay a 250 dollar fine if she raises objections under a law he had introduced as president.

Newspapers report that his “second wife”, Mariam Mumtaz Merri, is expected to return shortly to Bangladesh from the

United States, where she has been living for 14 years. Merri was sent away while Ershad was in power under pressure from his counterparts in the military who thought his second marriage was damaging the image of the president and the military regime.

Meanwhile, 11 radical Islamic priests in a joint statement have said the former president and Zeenat should be stoned to death under the Islamic Shariah law for their “self-confessed (crime of) adultry”.

They said both Ershad and Zeenat have violated Islamic laws and tarnished the image of Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, by their well-publicised, extra-marital relationship.

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