Former Bangladeshi ruler poised for return

December 26, 2008 12:00 am

, DHAKA, Dec 26 – Bangladesh’s charismatic former military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad, ousted in 1990 and then jailed for corruption, may emerge as kingmaker after general elections on Monday.

Sheikh Hasina Wajed is widely tipped to become the next prime minister but, with a third of voters casting ballots for the first time, her rival Khaleda Zia could make it a close race — leaving Ershad holding the balance of power.

The 78-year-old retired army general, who leads the fourth biggest political party, grabbed power in a bloodless coup in 1982 and ruled Bangladesh until 1990, when Sheikh Hasina and Zia worked together to oust him.

His Jatiya Party is among a 15-party leftist "grand alliance" lead by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party, which Ershad says has promised him the presidency if it comes to power.

But analysts say Ershad’s loyalty to Sheikh Hasina is not set in stone and he may be calling the shots once the votes are counted.

"The general view is that the Awami League will win but there are a huge number of undecided voters," said Manzoor Hasan, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka.

Hasan said the polls may result in a hung parliament, with Ershad — famed for his extra-marital affairs — emerging as a kingmaker.

His personal life became a talking point in conservative Muslim-majority Bangladesh earlier this year when his estranged second wife published a book about her life with him entitled "Sleeping with the Enemy."

In her bestseller, Bidisha described her ex-husband as a "sexual pervert," who kept Viagra in his briefcase and regularly visited prostitutes.

A spokesman for Ershad, who has a seven-year-old son with Bidisha and two adopted adult children from his first marriage, said the politician was unfazed by the book.

"It is a story written by a disgruntled divorcee. Our leader hasn’t even picked it up," a Jatiya Party spokesman said.

Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has used the contents of the book in a bid to discredit Ershad during campaigning for the election.

Ershad, who spent six years in jail on corruption charges after he was deposed in 1990 but was later cleared on most counts, has said becoming the country’s next president is his "ultimate dream."

"I want to die with honour and dignity. I want to vindicate my position," he told AFP last month.

Monday’s election is the first in Bangladesh in seven years and will end two years of rule by an army-backed government.


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