DHAKA (Reuters) - An octogenarian former comrade of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father in the country’s independence struggle is now the face of an embattled opposition seeking to end her decade-long rule increasingly tainted by accusations of authoritarianism.
In a general election due next month, Hasina’s ruling Awami League will be fighting to retain power against a new alliance led by Kamal Hossain, an Oxford-educated international jurist who drafted the country’s constitution – and whom Hasina grew up calling “kaka”, or uncle.
The 82-year-old lawyer says his decision to forge an alliance with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was critical to restoring democracy in the country.
Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is the longest serving leader in its short history. She began a second straight term in power in 2014, after an election boycotted by the BNP and shunned by international observers, with more than half the seats uncontested.
“What has happened in the last five years is unprecedented,” Hossain told Reuters in an interview. “We have never had a government for five years that was unelected.”
Hasina and BNP chief Khaleda Zia share a long and bitter rivalry and have alternated in power for most of the past 28 years. But the BNP has been in disarray since Khaleda was jailed on corruption charges, which she denies, early this year.
The BNP’s participation in the Dec. 30 election was in doubt until last month, when it and three other parties announced the formation of a new alliance, the Jatiya Oikya Front, or National Unity Front, helmed by Hossain, who runs a group called Gano Forum, or People’s Forum.
Hossain walks with a stick, and says he is not seeking to become prime minister as he is too old.
But some in the coalition, he said, privately compare him to Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister who took power aged 92 earlier this year, after defeating a predecessor mired in graft allegations.
“Maybe his health is better than mine,” quipped Hossain.
Hossain was born to a physician father under British rule in what is now Kolkata in eastern India. That was before the division into India and Pakistan, out of which Bangladesh was carved following a war in 1971.
He was jailed alongside Hasina’s father, and later served him as the country’s first law minister.
He went on to work in various roles at the United Nations after quitting the Awami League in the early 1990s to form the rival People’s Forum.
BNP insiders say his international standing and image as a freedom fighter were reasons behind bringing him in to front the alliance.
Siding with the BNP, though, sets him up as a target for Hasina. The BNP has ties with the banned Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed independence from Pakistan and several of whose members have been sentenced to death for committing war crimes.
Days after the new coalition was announced, Hasina declared that Hossain had “joined hands with killers”.
“Yes, the BNP did a lot of things I never appreciate,” said Hossain. “They injected a degree of communalism into politics which is very regrettable.”
But he said the coalition would be secular and have nothing to do with groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami.
Some question whether he has the characteristics needed for the uglier side of Bangladeshi politics.
“He is not a rebellious leader, he is a classic constitutional lawyer,” said Shahdeen Malik, a supreme court advocate and a professional acquaintance. “Intuitively, he would do things by the book, and in our politics that can be a disadvantage – that to me is his main weakness.”
Some political analysts predict a strong anti-incumbency sentiment in the election.
Besides detaining scores of opposition members on charges the BNP terms fictitious, Hasina’s government has also gone after critics such as prominent photographer Shahidul Alam, who was arrested for comments he made on social media. Hossain’s daughter Sara is a well-known lawyer who helped secure Alam’s bail last week.
Hasina has introduced laws that rights groups say give her sweeping powers to go after dissenters and gag the media.
Hossain called them a “pre-planned effort” to create “not even a one-party state, but a one-person state”.
“The real danger of having an authoritarian government like the present one is, God forbid if it survives the next election, many of us will not be able to remain in the country,” said Hossain in reference to his fears that critics will be targeted by the government.
The Awami League has denied trying to curb free speech or media freedom, and called cases filed against BNP members legitimate.
Previous elections have been marred by outbreaks of violence, ballot-stuffing and intimidation of voters, and Hossain said the alliance was planning to have several “observers” at polling booths and seeking international monitors.
But even a loss will not completely dent his optimism.
“I don’t think a bad election will be long lasting,” Hossain said. “I believe those who are aspiring autocrats don’t realize how deep the democracy commitment is in the blood of our people.”
Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui and Ruma Paul; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson