Former President General (rtd) HM Ershad has an interesting record to his name. Once ousted, hardly any military dictator or his party has ever fared well in a free and fair election across the world. Ershad is an exception. In the election that was held after his ouster in a bloody mass upsurge, Ershad's Jatya Party (JP) won 35 seats. The former dictator, then imprisoned on an array of corruption charges, won all the five seats he contested, a feat he shared with only Khaleda Zia in the 1991 elections.
I have always been amazed the way Ershad runs his trade, and during the last caretaker government's term in office I interviewed the former military strongman. He lamented the fact that his party MP hopefuls were not allowed to work in the run up to the first election since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Strange it may sound, his allegations were true--JP faced an unofficial ban at that time, and Ershad's popularity was one of the reasons why Khaleda nodded to the idea of amending the constitution to reintroduce Westminster-style government.
It might be why Bangladesh's new constitution that brought back parliamentary form of democracy vests the Prime Minister with power that only a Mughal emperor can outmatch. Add to that is her absolute power in the party where she handpicks her presidium/central committee members. In the councils of both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party it is Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia who were 'trusted' by the councillors with the responsibility of choosing members of both the parties' highest policymaking bodies.
The irony does not escape us: even though both the parties and their leaders talk about democracy in every breath they take, at heart and at home they remain all powerful autocrats. In the case of the BNP, it is not surprising at all for the party was founded at the height of General Zia's martial law. What is strange is the way the AL, the vanguard of our Liberation War, has started to entertain undemocratic practises in its fold. There's hardly any difference left now between the way the AL and the BNP are now run.
There's however now denying that in Bangladesh politics both the ladies enjoy the status of minor deities. Is it because the electorate sees some kind of mother figure engrained in their collective consciousness? Hardly so. Hasina and Khaleda thrive for the same reason Ershad, after the fall of his autocratic rule, had garnered 11 percent votes. Ordinary Bangladeshis do not have options, their choice always shuffle back and forth between the two major parties because they were never presented with a viable alternative to the duopoly that the two ladies created in local politics.
Politics in Bangladesh has remained a messy affair; members of the civil society have always shied away from it. To make matters even more grievous, young leadership that both the parties' quasi-democratic rule is producing is heavily infected with corruption and gangsterism. Change is the order of the day. But when, and, more importantly, how?
First published in The Daily Star on June 7, 2013