Bangladesh, in Uneasy Transition, Looks To Elections

THE ouster and arrest of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad has thrust Bangladesh into an uneasy political limbo. Mr. Ershad, who resigned from office Dec. 6 after a wave of antigovernment protests, was taken from his military compound Wednesday and placed under house arrest amid clamor for his detention and trial.

The deposed leader could be tried on charges of misrule and corruption before a tribunal set up by the interim government, political observers say.

The arrest defuses a tense standoff over Ershad who, until Tuesday, had held out against a crescendo of public outrage, even insisting on running in the coming national election.

Ershad's arrest came as a temporary government, headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and the Army, acceded to growing pressure. But Bangladesh, which in two decades of independence has never seen a smooth transition of power, faces an uncertain future, observers say. A core of Ershad loyalists remains in the military, though under control of more-reform-minded generals.

Conflict could reignite if radical students agitating for democracy press demands to see Ershad hanged, political observers say.

``If things go out of control, the last chance to restore democracy will be gone, plunging the country once again into uncertainty and further anarchy,'' says Maniruzzaman Mia, vice chancellor at Dhaka University.

The 60-year-old Ershad, a former general, came to power in a bloodless coup in 1982, withstanding several attempts to oust him. He is accused of fixing two parliamentary elections. He won the presidency in 1986 against token opposition.

Ershad's resignation capped two months of student-led protests. Long-standing discontent with authoritarian rule peaked, forging a student unity that analysts say was crucial in stirring demonstrations that helped bring down the government.

Created by the 1971 civil war that split East and West Pakistan, Bangladesh has endured nearly two decades of military rule. A crowded, predominantly Muslim country of 115 million people, Bangladesh has been troubled by poverty and frequent natural disasters.

At present, a trial of Ershad would likely be drawn out and touchy, analysts say.

Beyond that, elections for a new parliament are planned for early next year. Political observers say the main question is whether the anti-Ershad alliance can endure with Ershad gone.

The two main opposition leaders are Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder, and Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of former President Ziaur Rahman. Although more often at odds with each other than with Ershad, they were forced into a unified movement for democracy.

A similar opposition movement in 1987 collapsed when the two politicians accused each other of collaborating with Ershad. Despite some party opposition, the two have pledged to cooperate with the government to hold elections.

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