Bangladesh: momentum of Zia reforms may fizzle

Now that the attempted coup in Bangladesh has been crushed, the question is whether the political institutions that the assassinated President Ziaur Rahman built will survive him or slide into the huge political vacuum left by his death.

The 1975 assassination of Bangladesh's first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman , led to a prolonged power struggle among rival military factions and a series of coups and countercoups before Zia emerged as Bangladesh's strong man.

Vice-President Abdus Sattar has become Acting President, and constitutional authorities, backed by the armed forces, are clearly running the government and trying hard to project an air of normalcy.

The body of President Zia, who was shot to death May 30 in the port city of Chittagong, seat of the attempted coup, has been recovered and returned to Dacca , where he is to be given a state funeral. Government forces recaptured Chittagong June 1, and Reuters cited official Bangladesh government reports that the rebel leader, Army Maj. Gen. Abul Manzur, had been arrested.

The attempted coup floundered when it failed to spread to other military units, which remained loyal to the government.

One big concern is what happens next within the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which Zia established when he led the country in successful transition from martial law to civilian government.

The party holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, but it was dominated by Zia's powerful personality -- to a degree many observers found unhealthy. Zia's party, like his administration, was "too much of a one-man show," as one diplomat put it.

Bangladesh has about 50 active political parties, 13 of them represented in parliament. Zia tried to broaden his party's base beyond the traditional center of Bangladesh party politics -- the small but disproportionately influential urban middle class in Dacca and other major towns.

One reason for his frequent helicopter trips to far-flung villages was "to go over the heads of the urban minority to reach the people in the rural areas," according to a diplomatic analyst. About 90 percent of Bangladesh's more than 90 million people live in the rural areas, and they have traditionally been more concerned about where their next meal is coming from than about national politics.

Whether the party ranks will hold together in their leader's absence or split into factions remains to be seen.

The Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's old party, is considered the strongest opposition party, but it, too, has been divided in recent years.

Its February election of Mujib's daughter, Hasina Wazed, as party chairman was seen as a compromise move made largely for her symbolic value. Mrs. Wazed returned to Bangladesh late last month after six years of exile in India. Reports May 31 that she had been arrested while trying to cross the border back into India were denied by Bangladesh envoys in India, who said she was in Dacca appealing for unity.

The Awami League has been tarred by the memory of the political and economic chaos that marked the last years of Sheikh Mujib's rule, and many Bangladeshis regard it as too "pro-Indian" for their tastes.

Playing on anti-Indian sentiment, Zia's followers had made much of Mrs. Wazed's long stay in India and the four-month gap between her February election in absentia and her May return to Bangladesh from her home in Delhi. Many Indians believe the Zia government engineered a recent Indo-Bangladesh quarrel over an island that appeared in their river boundery to divert attention from Mrs. Wazed's return.

Another key question is how the economic development programs that Zia worked so hard on will fare.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated nations on earth, unable to feed itself despite massive foreign aid.

With Zia gone, there is concern that the momentum that brought the country within a few years' reach of food self-sufficiency may be broken.

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