Bangladesh's military leader puts his rule up for vote March 21

Only recently one of two main opposition groups in Bangladesh claimed that ``the nation is ready to give a final push to the military ruler Lieutenant General Ershad.'' Now, however, most opposition leaders are running from the police to escape arrest, and some of them are already in jail.

Martial law was reimposed March 1 by Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, placing a ban on all political activities (except his own).

At the same time, he announced a referendum to be held March 21 to seek a confidence vote in his rule.

Ershad explained that he took these actions because the main opposition parties, grouped into two alliances, declined to take part in elections repeatedly offered by him, and the law and order situation was deteriorating due to the indisciplined political activities of some parties.

The two women who lead the main opposition -- Sheikh Hasina Wazed of the Awami League party, and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party -- are under house arrest, and many Bangladeshis who support the anti-Ershad movement are without political rights.

Opposition leaders have called for a general strike on Thursday to protest against the referendum which they regard as a ploy to legalize Ershad's martial law government.

The opposition has also accused supporters of the government of using arms on the Dacca University campus and other places. They had also said that this lawlessness would be used as the pretext for clamping martial law again. There will be nearly 23,000 polling centers for about 48 million voters on the referendum day. The opposition parties do not appear to have the organizational capability to stop voting at all these places. So it appears they have concluded that the only way to force Ershad to call off the referendum is either to frighten him with the grim prospect of bloody clashes during the threatened boycott, or in case he still goes through with the referendum, to make it appear as a total farce.

Ershad, however, is not relying only on the threat of martial law to drive the opposition out of the field. He is also trying to weaken popular support for the opposition by making political promises.

He has promised national elections after the referendum if the political parties were willing to take part in such elections. Information Minister A. R. Yusuf said that a major purpose of the referendum is also to receive a mandate for holding elections on the basis of the presently suspended Constitution.

Ershad has announced elections four times, but each time his offer has been rejected by the opposition parties. Their main demand is that military rule must come to an end. They fear that if general elections take place while Ershad remains in power, the elections will be manipulated to give his supporters a victory, more so because he sponsors a political party called the ``Janadal'' (People's Party).

This party accepts Ershad's theory that the military has a role in national development programs. The opposition has insisted that martial law must be lifted first and that parliamentary elections should take place under the supervision of a caretaker government.

Ershad is reported to have dropped broad hints that he would restore political liberties if the opposition parties reached an understanding with him on the transition to civilian government.

Quite a large number among the opposition alliances were, however, agreeable to taking part in the parliament elections scheduled for April 6 -- now indefinitely postponed -- when Ershad abolished much of his martial law administration and also dropped Janadal members from his Cabinet to ilustrate his neutrality.

However, they were checkmated by four factors: (1) hardline oppositionists claimed that martial law and thus military rule was still in force; (2) Ershad did not announce publicly that he had no connections with the Janadal; (3) both Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia had openly called the Ershad government illegal and found it difficult to backtrack; and (4) hardliners also held that even an elected parliament under the existing system would have to accept the authority of Ershad, as chief executive, until a new president could be elected, which was unacceptable to them politically since he was a serving military officer. The only way out, they argued, was to have a caretaker government replace Ershad.

The question now on which Ershad wants the Bangladeshi voters to give a verdict in the referendum -- which it appears will be a one-sided affair -- is whether they have confidence in his policies and whether he can continue as President until elections are held in accordance with the suspended Constitution.

A win for him in the referendum will enable him to remain President as long as the opposition does not make a truce with him, which now looks virtually impossible.

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