A Sweep for Zia

Begum Khaleda Zia, Chairwoman of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), swept to power with a massive electoral landslide on Oct. 1, beating out her longtime rival, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the president of the Awami League and the first Bangladeshi leader to serve a full five-year term as prime minister. But for voters in Bangladesh—a country rated by Transparency International as the most corrupt nation in the world—the BNP’s overwhelming mandate was understandably viewed with suspicion.

That suspicion quickly grew into outrage in the days following the election. Cries of fraud, allegations of vote-rigging, and bouts of political violence erupted throughout Dhaka. Sheikh Hasina herself rejected the verdict and boycotted Zia’s swearing-in ceremony, despite insistence by international monitors that the elections had been free and fair.

Zia, the widow of an assassinated military dictator, and Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the nation’s first elected leader, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, have long jockeyed with each other for power in Bangladesh. Writing in Dhaka’s independent Daily Star (Oct. 12), Hasnat Abdul Hye defended the country’s first democratic election. He dismissed the possibility of “crude [vote-] rigging,” but acknowledged that mistakes, “deliberate or genuine, may have been made here and there.” “With the best of intentions and under the best of circumstances, it is almost impossible to guarantee a completely free and fair election,” he opined.

Independent observers, also ruling out fraud, attribute Zia’s victory to her party’s alliance with three other parties, which brought her coalition’s portion of the vote to 46 percent. Two of those parties are fundamentalist Islamic groups whose aims are to turn Bangladesh into a republic ruled by Islamic law.

Other Bangladeshi analysts believe that the BNP benefited enormously from Bangladeshi resentment toward the Awami’s corruption, nepotism, and the terrorism committed by its supporters.

Because of the controversy surrounding Zia’s victory, Dhaka’s independent The New Nation (Oct. 10) cautioned that the new government must proceed with sensitivity and restraint. “The sensible course for the ruling party,” the editorial said, “would be not to fan the flames of an opposition-led movement.”

Neighboring India praised the successful election but viewed the results with nervousness, considering that radical, anti-India Islamists were now part and parcel of the Bangladeshi government. New Delhi’s independent The Pioneer (Oct. 3) recalled that Zia herself had more than once described northeastern rebels as freedom fighters. The editorial went on to say, “One hopes that...sober counsels will prevail now that she is once again saddled with the responsibilities of office.”