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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 April 2007, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
What next for Bangladesh dynasties?
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Dhaka

"This isn't democracy, this is dynasty," one senior government member told me recently.

He was referring to the unassailable positions former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina enjoy at the top of their respective political parties.

Bangladeshi soldier
The caretaker government has strong backing from the military

Elements of the current military-backed emergency government have clearly been intent on removing the two women from the scene.

"I have no doubt, nor would anyone you ask in the street, that this government was trying to persuade them to leave Bangladesh," says Dr Nazrul, Professor of Law at Dhaka University.

But nor can there be, he believes, much doubt that this government, although bolstered with strong military backing, is intent on genuine democratic reform.

And it is true that much of what the government has done in this regard has been applauded widely both at home and abroad, including its efforts to reform the electoral process and its firm stance against corruption.

So how did this caretaker administration get itself into such a mess over the attempted exiles, and such a seemingly undemocratic mess at that?

The motivation was simple. Some government insiders believed real political reform would be impossible with the two leaders still on the scene.

Family dynasties

The Awami League President Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia are bitter political rivals who have alternated in power for the best part of two decades.

Their mutual loathing and mistrust are carried through into their parties' politics.

The cancellation of January's general election and the declaration of the state of emergency were precipitated by Bangladesh's unique brand of violent street protest, gerrymandering and winner-takes-all politics that have characterised their years in power.

Sheikh Hasina
Sheikh Hasina was stranded at London's Heathrow airport

So with Sheikh Hasina out of the country on a personal visit, the government saw its chance.

And so too did some of the two leaders' closest colleagues, according to Dr Nazrul.

"Some senior party figures from both parties have long harboured bad feelings," he believes.

The family dynasties on which they are based leave little room for leadership challenges.

"They saw their chance, and there was encouragement from the government."

The government issued a notice asking all international airlines not to carry Sheikh Hasina back to Bangladesh, alleging that she posed some kind of threat to national security.

At the same time, the pressure was on to make Khaleda Zia leave the country too. The government had a convenient way of squeezing her.

Her eldest son and BNP heir apparent Tarique Rahman has swapped his ostentatious wealth for prison board and lodging, having been picked up on charges of corruption along with many other senior politicians from both parties.

The arrest and subsequent re-release of her second son Arafat Rahman seemed to signal that a bargain had been struck.

Family members confirmed that Khaleda Zia was being prepared for exile in Saudi Arabia.

Stranded at Heathrow

But late last week something changed.

There are many theories and rumours. That elements of the military, loyal to the memory of her late husband, the assassinated president General Ziaur Rahman, intervened on her behalf.

That her sons insisted she stay regardless of the consequences.

The Saudi authorities were said to have been reluctant to issue a visa for a someone coming under duress.

Or perhaps she simply decided to dig her heals in to be absolutely sure there was no chance of Sheikh Hasina returning, before she herself agreed to leave.

On Sunday, British Airways prevented Sheikh Hasina from boarding the London flight to Dhaka. She was left stranded and furious at Heathrow.

Khaleda Zia
Attempts to force Khaleda Zia into exile failed
But meanwhile, with some 200 journalists camped out at Dhaka International Airport, Khaleda Zia remained at home, albeit under virtual house arrest according to her supporters.

Government insiders said they were searching for other countries that may have been willing to take her in.

But the momentum already seemed lost.

More importantly, opposition to the plan, never popular from the start, was growing.

There was strong criticism from leading intellectuals, legal challenges, opposition from the media, as well as international pressure to rethink the strategy.

If the two women were guilty of misrule or criminal acts they should be tried in Bangladesh, was the general consensus.

And all the while Sheikh Hasina was busy campaigning angrily around London news studios.

There was little choice but to climb down. Sheikh Hasina can now return, and the emergency government denies there was ever a plan to exile Khaleda Zia.

Authority reasserted

While welcoming the U-turn, the media's judgement has been harsh.

"Bangladesh's image abroad has taken a drubbing and the credibility of the government has taken a tumble," said one editorial.

So what happens next? These two powerful leaders have certainly reasserted their authority.

"This government now looks weak for the first time," says Dr Nazrul.

There is a danger that the emboldened political parties may begin to challenge the authority of the emergency administration, which has banned all political activity.

Perhaps the government will try to contain this risk by pursuing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina through the courts, certainly an option that has been alluded to in off-the-record briefings with government officials.

"This government needs to regain lost ground by following due process," says Asif Nazrul.

"It needs to adhere to existing law and investigate whether there is any case of corruption against these two leaders to be answered. If there is, then it needs to make a credible case and pursue it through the courts."

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