Soldier, politician and poet, Hussain Mohammad Ershad is a man who has taken pride in his sense of balance. For almost nine years he managed to maintain his footing in the notoriously slippery ground of Bangladesh politics. Last week, however, the President ran out of ground to stand on. Resigning in a dramatic late-night announcement, he touched off jubilant dancing in the streets by people who viewed his humiliation as poetic justice.
"Ershad is gone, Ershad is gone! Burn his throne!" screamed a flag-waving crowd in Dhaka as firecrackers exploded across the capital. "Catch the thief! Don't let him go!" chanted other marchers. But Ershad wasn't going anywhere. He even personally swore in his successor: Shahabuddin Ahmed, chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom opposition leaders had nominated as caretaker President. Said Ershad: "I want peace to return to society."
The movement to oust the ex-general began in early October. By late November, strikes and demonstrations had reached such fury that Ershad imposed a state of emergency, a stratagem he had used twice before since his seizure of power in 1982.
But the big stick failed to save him this time. Doctors, lawyers, civil servants and merchant seamen refused to work. Journalists and television actors walked off their jobs. Shops remained shuttered, and curfew-defying protesters took to the streets. Said opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia: "The autocratic Ershad had to surrender to the people's will."
Both Khaleda and her partner in the movement's leadership, Sheik Hasina Wazed, now stand a good chance of ruling their desperately poor, densely ) populated Muslim homeland of 110 million. Hasina, 43, is a daughter of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the 19-year-old nation's founding father, while Khaleda, 46, is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, the South Asian country's military ruler from 1975 to 1981. Both leaders were assassinated in army revolts.
Ershad's exit boosted hopes for democratic succession in a country whose political history has been written in blood. Though he vowed to run for the presidency again, legislators in his own Jatiya Party were resigning last week and even military loyalists encouraged him to go. Scandals, a tyrant's image and a 50% rise in oil prices since the Persian Gulf crisis broke out sealed his doom. Said one movement leader: "From government officers to ricksha pullers, all were out in the street. It was phenomenal." It will also be phenomenal if democracy manages to heal a country that was born in a brutal secession from Pakistan in 1971 and has stumbled from coup to coup since.