In fact, what Zia offered in a nationally televised address on March 3—the first since her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) swept to power in an election boycotted by all major opposition parties—was more than what the opposition has been demanding. In an effort to end the protracted conflict that has paralysed Bangladesh for nearly two years, Zia made three proposals: first, all future national elections will be held under a neutral government (a clear concession to the opposition's demand for a neutral authority to oversee the next three elections); second, for this to happen, the first session of the sixth parliament will take necessary measures to amend the Constitution and put it up for a referendum; and third, elections to the seventh parliament would be held soon.
Proposing these measures, the prime minister reiterated her desire to hold talks with the opposition parties—namely the Awami League, the Jatiya Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami—and hoped that the opposition would now come to the negotiating table and renounce the often violent agitations they have resorted to in order to press for their demands.
The opposition did react immediately, but its response was negative. All the three main opposition parties rejected her offer, saying it was a devious move designed to legitimise the illegal sixth parliament elected through fraudulent methods and false voting. They were also sceptical of her offer to hold elections soon, noting that Zia had not specified any time for this. Instead, the opposition demanded the dissolution of the sixth parliament and the immediate resignation of the prime minister and her government. While maintaining that they were not averse to holding talks for a negotiated settlement, they insisted that they must be held under the initiative of President Abdur Rahman Biswas.
"We can sit across the table with Khaleda Zia not as prime minister but as chairperson of the BNP," said Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League, in a press statement.
And though she has not actually said so, Zia's subsequent actions reflect her desire to cling to power for as long as possible. After the oath-taking ceremony of the newly elected members of the sixth parliament on March 4, a day after she made her offer, she was elected leader of the House amidst thunderous applause, a firm indication that she remains prime minister until further notice.
But despite her resolve to remain in power in the face of the opposition's challenges, Zia also seems willing to negotiate. To demonstrate her sincerity in resolving the crisis, she sent a letter on March 5 to her main political foe, Sheikh Hasina, inviting her to resume the stalled negotiations. In an effort to create what the BNP general secretary called a "congenial atmosphere" for the resumption of the talks, the government released three opposition leaders—Tofael Ahmed and Mohammed Nasim of the Awami League, and Abdul Kader Mola of the Jamaat-e-Islami—from jail the same day. Dhaka also promised to release other jailed leaders, including Anwar Hossain Manju and Moudud Ahmed, secretary general and presidium member respectively of the Jatiya Party, and Matia Chowdhury, agriculture secretary of the Awami League.
However, these gestures are unlikely to placate the opposition, particularly the powerful Awami League. "We can't have any dialogue with her. She now heads an illegitimate government, and sitting down with her amounts to legitimising the February 15 elections," said Sams Kibria, political adviser to the Awami League chief.
Elaborating on Hasina's proposal for a dialogue under the President's supervision, Kibria said it can start only after the government clears the way for the formation of a caretaker government by resigning and annulling the recent polls. He also said the Election Commission must be reconstituted to ensure that it enjoys the trust of the nation which the current commission has "totally forfeited". Further, a time frame had to be set for the elections to the sixth parliament again as "we do not recognise the validity of the present parliament spawned by an election which is neither valid in fact nor under the law".
Zia's conciliatory moves and the apparent sincerity of the ruling party have independent observers speculating over the apparent change of heart, given her unwavering stand so far. What has surprised them particularly is her acceptance of the idea of a caretaker government, since she had repeatedly rejected it earlier as "unconstitutional and hence unacceptable".
Charitable observers concede that Zia is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people and that she is convinced that her intransigence would only push the country further towards the brink of disaster. The belated but costly realisation has thus made her soften her stand and yield to the opposition's demand.
Critics, on the other hand, believe that the change has come because the opposition movement is steadily gaining momentum, and the February 15 election, widely viewed as a sham, further weakened Zia's moral authority to govern. The apparent success of the opposition's noncooperation movement is seen as a testimony to the growing public support. But what has particularly unnerved the government is the explosive anger that followed the arrest last month of Mohiuddin Chowdhury, the popular mayor of Chittagong and president of the local unit of the Awami League. No reason was cited for his arrest, but it is widely believed that the arrest was part of a plan to detain powerful opposition leaders in order to defuse the ongoing anti-government movement.
The response was mild when the government began the arrests immediately after Id-ul-Fitr. But it gained momentum once the news of Chowdhury's arrest spread through Chittagong. Loath to face the violent mobs, riot police vanished from the city and the authorities were forced to callout the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles to restore order, a move which simply stoked the fires further.
Three days of rioting and violent clashes between the law enforcement agencies and rampaging mobs left at least two persons dead, more than 200 injured and public and private property—including banks, insurance offices, police stations and other government buildings worth millions of takas—destroyed. The situation started limping back to normal only after the arrested mayor appealed for restraint in a statement released from jail. Had a similar situation occurred in Dhaka, the government would have undoubtedly fallen, commented Jai Jai Din , an independent and widely circulated weekly. Independent analysts too are still not certain if such a situation would not arise in Dhaka, given the opposition's fresh call for an indefinite non-cooperation movement beginningMarch 9 to completely immobilise the country until Zia steps down.
On March 6, at least eight people were killed when security forces opened fire on violent opposition activists trying to prevent repolling in Rangpur and Sirajgunj districts. Meanwhile, opposition activists set several vehicles ablaze in various localities of Dhaka to foil a government victory rally scheduled for that day.
No government can sit idle and watch the country sink deeper into chaos. So to show that it means business, the government will now have to do something to foil the opposition movement. But considering the opposition's rejection of Zia's last-ditch efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully through talks, a violent confrontation seems inevitable.
"The only way out of this critical situation," says Dr Kamal Hossain, former foreign minister and a respected jurist, "is a national dialogue. Now that the prime minister has accepted the opposition's demand, and the opposition is deter-mined not to sit with the present government, the only solution lies in a dialogue with eminent citizens who would work out the modalities for holding the next election under a caretaker government."
The other option being considered is some kind of a military intervention. But according to well-placed sources, the army top brass including the army chief, Lt General Abu Saleh Mohammed Nasim, the army is reluctant to step in. Disgraced by its prolonged misrule for about 15 years, the army is busy recovering its lost glory. Besides, the external factor also has to be taken into account. The US, the only remaining superpower, has categorically said it will not tolerate military intervention in Bangladesh politics.
Independent observers however feel that the people, clearly running out of patience, might even welcome the army for a brief period to prevent the nation from being engulfed in a civil war. For, in a democracy, it is, after all, the people who matter.