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POLITICS-BANGLADESH: Hasina Can Lay to Rest Ghosts of the Past

Analysis by Farid Ahmed

DHAKA, Jan 2 2009 (IPS) - With a stunning landslide victory under her belt, prime minister-elect Sheikh Hasina Wajed has a second opportunity to put the ghosts of the past to rest and release Bangladesh from a cycle of crises that has plagued this country since its violent birth in 1971.

Political analysts say people look forward to the New Year with the hope that the country’s successfully concluded elections will mark a peaceful transition to democracy, after two years of rule by a military-backed interim government.

Hasina’s Awami League claimed a two-thirds majority in the 300-member parliament, handing a resounding defeat to the last elected prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been reduced to a mere 29 seats with her party’s allies winning another two seats.

It was a clear mandate with voters showing disillusionment with the Zia’s BNP-led coalition which stands accused of massive corruption, abuse of power and sheltering militants.

The BNP had also forged an opportunistic alliance with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party which had collaborated in the 1971 genocide carried out by the Pakistan army to prevent the secession of what was then known as East Pakistan.

Hasina has pledged a “charter for change,” though this is hard for the daughter of the country’s founder-president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in a military putsch in August 1975. Hasina’s close family members, including her mother and three brothers, were killed and she, and a sister, survived only because they were in Germany at that time.

“Hasina Wajed has shown us a vision with her charter for change and the people opted for that change… and now it’s her turn to deliver,” a school teacher Shafinaz Islam told IPS.

“Now is the time to see if they really change,” Bangladesh Political Science Association chairman Prof. Ataur Rahman of Dhaka University told IPS. ‘’In fact, it’s a people’s mandate against the BNP’s failure.”

Rahman attributed the Awami League’s success to the fact that an anti-graft drive, launched by the interim government, netted many of the top leaders of the BNP. Zia’s influential elder son, Tarique Rahman, fled the country when investigators knocked on his door.

The unelected interim government, to its credit, worked on electoral fraud, removing 13,000 ‘ghost voters’ from revised rolls and issued new, computerised identity cards.

Elections were originally scheduled for January 2007, but were postponed after a military-backed interim government took over under a state of emergency necessitated by political violence over allegation of election fraud after Zia stepped down in October 2006, having completed a five-year term in office.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur, the country was ruled by Zia’s husband Ziaur Rehman until he was, in turn, assassinated in a coup in 1981. The country was thereafter ruled mostly by a succession of military dictatorships until 1991 when parliamentary democracy was introduced.

Since then the two women, Zia and Hasina, dubbed the “battling begums” for their intense rivalry and personal hatred, ruled the country in alternative terms. Zia was prime minister twice from 1991 to 1996 and then from 2001 to 2006.

Analysts said the new government will have to continue the fight against rampant corruption, arrest the rising prices of essential commodities and reduce poverty in a country where over 40 percent of Bangladesh’s 150 million live on less than one US dollar per day.

Recent Central Bank reports said rising prices of food items have eroded the purchasing power as well as living standards government and non-government employees, industrial workers as well as people with limited incomes and pushed large numbers of people below the poverty line.

In her first press briefing, after the election results were known, Hasina said her main challenges were curbing poverty and fighting fundamentalist militancy.

Zia, in her post-poll briefing, alleged that polls were rigged in favour of the Awami League and were therefore unacceptable. But, on Thursday, her BNP party relented and said it wanted to give Hasina a chance to govern – though international monitors said there was no reason to suspect fraud.

”We know beyond doubt that the election was rigged and results were manipulated,” BNP secretary-general Khandaker Delwar Hossain said. “Yet we would like to give the Awami League a chance to rule and prove its efficiency.”

Hasina’s toughest job will be addressing the issue of war crimes as she received massive support from people demanding that those who helped the Pakistani army carry out the 1971 genocide be brought to trial.

Though the numbers are disputed the Guinness Book of Records lists what happened in 1971 as among the top five genocides of the 20th century. It is generally accepted that at least 200,000 people perished.

Already, Hasina has sought help from Ian Martin, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative to Nepal, who was in Dhaka on Thursday. Martin is reported to have assured Hasina cooperation in arranging for the trial of war criminals, should the Bangladesh government make a formal request.

Prof. Rahman said the Awami League was in danger of being unable to deliver on the many promises made and raising the people’s expectations. “It’ll be difficult for the party to meet the people’s demands.”

The ‘New Age’ daily, in its editorial on Dec. 30, said: “The biggest challenge that Awami League has been exposed to is properly handling the huge parliamentary strength.”

The editorial suggested that two-thirds majorities in Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries, have often resulted in failure to ‘’behave democratically, particularly in terms of accommodating dissenting views of the opposition parties on the one hand and the critical media on the other”.

“We only hope that the Awami League will take lessons from history and contribute to the institutionalisation of a sound parliamentary system of governance in the country,” the New Age said in its editorial.

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