A President Who Set Precedents
Ever since he hit the headlines, Hussain Mohammad Ershad has been setting one precedent after another. Never before in the short history of Bangladesh had a leader taken over without bloodshed, never had a leader been forcibly removed from office, or jailed for misdeeds, never had a leader won parliamentary seats from jail (not just once but twice), and never had a leader come out of jail as strong a contender for political office. Finally, never before had a leader been so open about his love life. In the end, the 69-year-old former president of Bangladesh and chairman of the Jatiya Party may have committed political suicide by admitting his long-time relationship with Zinat Musharraf Hossain, wife of Musharraf Hossain, former industry secretary and now an MP of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). His wife of more than 35 years, Begum Raushaun Ershad, walked out on him, while three of his senior party leaders with the support of the Begum herself have appeared in the press asking the party chairman to relinquish his position.
Meteoric Military Career
Mr Ershad began as a lieutenant colonel in the Liberation War, was detained in a Pakistani war camp, and it was only in 1973 that he returned to independent Bangladesh. After that his rise to the top was of meteoric. In 1974, he was made colonel and sent to a military academy in India and promoted to brigadier while he still there. He came back to Bangladesh in 1975 after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and was promoted again to Major General by Ziaur Rahman, who had himself just been appointed army chief by the then President Khondokar Mustaque Ahmed. Mr Ershad became the deputy chief of army the very next year. And in 1978, when General Zia quit the army and was elected president, it was Mr Ershad who took up the post of army chief with his new rank of lieutenant general.
In May 1981, after President Zia was assassinated by another group of army officers, Vice-President Abdus Sattar became actingpresident and was later elected president. It was from Sattar that Ershad took over power through a bloodless coup on March 24, 1982. He retired from the army and made himself president in 1983 but retained the title of Chief Martial Law Administrator.
Ershad is now facing, among others, a case on charges of usurpation of power when he took control in March 1982 and declared Martial Law. He has refused to admit that he forcibly took power from the then government: "Sattar handed over power to me. The whole world knows that." He said that Martial Law had come to an end and that he had his actions ratified through the seventh amendment to the constitution. He also claims that the BNP was responsible for prolonging his military rule by refusing to participate in the first elections in 1984 after first agreeing to do so.
The statement for Mr Ershad´s resignation on "moral grounds" last month came after he had granted an interview with a local Bengali daily where he admitted his relationship with Zinat. Zinat Musharraf Hossain is a Jatiya Party MP and presidium member. After the elections last June, the parliament had to elect 30 members for seats reserved for women as per the constitution. The Jatiya Party was allotted three of those seats. Mr Ershad nominated Zinat. Party members say that the other two nominated MPs were also friends of Zinat. Mr Ershad´s wife Raushaun is currently also a Jatiya Party MP, but she was elected from her home district of Kishoregonj directly. Some Jatiya Party members said it would "no link with the woman scandal". So, Mr Ershad stated that he had severed ties with Zinat and that she has been "relieved" of her Jatiya Party presidium membership. But this would not pacify party members who considered it "nothing but a bluff" and are standing their ground for his resignation.
Since his jailing in December 1990 after a popular uprising, Mr Ershad´s Jatiya Party has fragmented into several rival groups. This fact was clearly evident when Mr Ershad was in Rangpur in February of this year to celebrate Eid. On his arrival at Saidpur airport, the rival groups of his party raised slogans against each other to the point that those at the gathering soon came to blows.
As of January 9,1997, six years and 25 days after his government was toppled Mr Ershad was free to take the reins of his party once again. His release got mixed reactions. Jatiya Party leader Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury hailed it as a "victory of rule of law ensured by the present government". Bangladesh Nationalist Party´s Begum Khaleda Zia, wife of late President Ziaur Rahman, said the release was the result of a tacit understanding between the Jatiya Party and the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Bangladesh´s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It should be noted that during the 1986 elections, Mr Ershad had won by a landslide, the BNP had boycotted what it considered an election under an illegal government. The Awami League, however, did participate because of what many believed to be a secret understanding between Sheikh Hasina and Mr Ershad. Upon his release from jail the allegations of Jatitya´s "entente" with the Awami League have resurfaced.
Begum Khaleda Zia´s BNP ruled from 1991 to 1996, when she won the general elections held under the caretaker government of acting-president Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed in February 1991, formed after Ershad had stepped down. The uprising against Mr Ershad had been initiated by the Three Alliances, led by the BNP, the Awami League and the Jamaat-E-Islami. Mr Ershad claims that his arrest was a direct violation of the agreement he had before stepping down with the leaders of the Three Alliances and acting-president of the caretaker government. He said the caretaker government had agreed "not to victimise any of our leaders and that the Jatiya Party would be allowed to contest the parliamentary elections with equal opportunity enjoyed by other political parties".
What Mr Ershad does not mention, is that in return he had agreed not to dabble in politics. He ignored this and in an interview with the BBC declared that he would contest elections and return to power. That off-hand remark angered students who demanded that Mr Ershad be arrested and threatened that they would surround the cantonment where he was living if he wasn´t.
This outcry was subsequently supported by the large political parties. Justice Shahabuddin in his efforts to ensure that the atmosphere for the upcoming elections would be peaceful, the primary task of his interim caretaker government, had Mr Ershad put behind bars. He was allowed to contest elections, and an enquiry commission set up. Mr Ershad ran in the elections from his home province of Rangpur for five seats and won from all five of the constituencies.
Upon being freed Mr Ershad said his release proved that the cases filed against him were politically motivated to destroy him. "I am freed because the present government did not influence the judiciary which the previous government did. The release was possible as the judiciary could function independently," he added. He also denied ever having any agreements with the ruling Awami League.
But the appointment of Jatiya Party Secretary General Anwar Hossain Monju as Communications Minister in the Awami League cabinet, described as a "government of consensus," has bolstered the argument that there was indeed a tacit understanding between the two parties.
Currently, in addition to Mr Ershad´s resignation, three top presidium members have also demanded that the Jatiya Secretary General resign from the cabinet. They feel it is farcical that a party secretary general be in government while the rest of the party is in the opposition.
Mr Ershad says that the government of consensus is not a permanent settlement, and that the Jatiya Party decision to support the Awami League in the formation of the government will be proof of his party´s political sagacity in the long run. "Although the present government is of consensus, it is essentially an Awami League government. The Jatiya Party is playing a constructive role as an opposition party," he added. Mr Ershad plays no heed to allegations of a partnership with the Awami League.
But he admits that there is more "political symmetry" between his party and the BNP than with the Awami League .Both the JP and the BNP, he said, profess "Bangladeshi" nationalism as opposed to the Awami League´s "Bengali" nationalism. He has said that he would continue to support the Awami League for the next five years, although it was too early still to evaluate the Awami League government, but also that he would not rule out the possibility of developing good relations with the BNP because "there is no last word in politics."
Mr Ershad has also been low key on the sensitive water sharing treaty between Bangladesh and India—the most far-reaching agreement made by the Awami League government to date. He says he will reserve comments until the dry season when it can be ascertained how much water will actually flow into Bangladesh.
Mr Ershad has also been reticent on the recent expiration of a 25-year treaty with India, and the possibility of a peace agreement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. His only advice to the Awami League government regarding the peace agreement is that the army be kept in the negotiations, "as the army is the symbol of our independence and sovereignty".
However, the three Jatiya Party presidium members say that Mr Ershad does not represent the party any more and they want the Party to play the role of opposition on issues like the transit with India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the SAARC subregional grouping and the Indo-Bangladesh water treaty. They said Mr Ershad has been contradicting the party line and they gripe that he is whimsical and is not running the party democratically.
Mr Ershad has of late turned his focus on an even more personal agenda, claiming pension and benefits both as a former Army Chief and a ex-president which he says entitle him to a monthly pension which is half of the salary drawn on the last day of office. The benefits include a personal assistant and an attendant, medical facilities admissible to a minister and government transport free of charge for attending official functions. If granted, the former president is also entitled to a telephone at his residence and an exemption of the bill to as much as the government desires, free lodging at any government circuit house and a diplomatic passport.
In his first political meet after his release from jail in January Mr Ershad called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to hold a corruptioin trial against the BNP regime. Mr Ershad is especially bitter against the BNP because it did not provide him with pen, paper and books when he was in jail. Mr Ershad, who has always seen himself as a poet, said BNP "should remember that a poet and his poems cannot be killed."
BNP´s deputy leader in the parliament Prof. Badruddoza Chowdhury in a meeting has called Mr Ershad "Frakenstein´s monster that will ultimately destroy its master, the Awami League". Sources speculate that the Jatiya-Awami pact was not exactly an agreement but an anticipation that the Jatiya Party would keep the BNP distracted. And although Mr Ershad has been in the papers accusing the Zia government of numerous misdeeds, the Begum has shown political restraint by not reciprocating in kind.
Mr Ershad says his party is "the only nationalist force in the country". He calls the BNP pseudo-nationalists. "Their foundation is only to oppose the Awami League and India," he said of the BNP, "… our foundation is the legacy of 1947 and 1971."
Jatiya Party stalwarts accuse Mr Ershad of destroying the party´s image. "Under the circumstances, we feel that it our duty to save the party and uphold the party banner of nationalism, democracy, Islamic values and economic freedom," they say.
Mr Ershad for his part has vowed not to go back to jail. "I am confident, I will get bail in all the cases. I have suffered a lot without having any fault," he added. The message he gives to his party men is that they must forget all the differences inside the organisation and prepare to achieve a landslide victory in the next elections.
Meanwhile what of the women behind the great man? Raushaun Ershad has returned alter Ershad´s promise that he will break ties with Zinat, although friction is still evident. Zinat for her part has left her husband´s house for places unknown, and MP Musharraf Hossain has reportedly divorced his wife. Dhaka is rife with rumour that the pro-Zmat faction of the Jatiya Party is planning a surprise of its own with the return of another "Ershad woman", Mary Badruddin from New York soon. With his inner-party feuds, complications arising from the politically-ambitious women in his life and political foes with long-term grudges, Mr Ershad may find it difficult to set one last precedent—become the leader of Bangladesh twice.