Bangladesh: A tale of two women - By David Chazan Back   Home  
Bangladeshi politics revolves around a vitriolic personal feud between two women - the outgoing prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her rival, Khaleda Zia.

With the latest results showing a convincing victory for Mrs Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) over Mrs Hasina's Awami League, the question is, will the loser accept defeat? A legacy of hatred: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia

The election campaign was the most violent in Bangladesh's turbulent 30-year history, marked by a series of coups and counter-coups.

At least 140 people died in the run-up to voting.

Mrs Hasina was the first prime minister to serve out her full term of office in a country where political power has often been seized at gunpoint.

Mrs Hasina is reported to have said she will not accept the result of what she called a "rigged" election.

Celebrations in the BNP camp were muted - seen as a sign that Mrs Zia wanted to avoid antagonising her rival.


Instead, Mrs Zia called for political reconciliation and national unity, promising to eradicate corruption and increase living standards in one of the world's poorest countries.

The feud between the two rivals goes back at least a quarter of a century, stemming from Bangladesh's bloodstained past.

Insiders say Mrs Hasina believes that Mrs Zia's husband was partly to blame for the assassination of Mrs Hasina's father, former President Mujibur Rahman.

Mrs Zia's husband, a former military dictator, was also assassinated.

The two women have often hurled bitter personal insults at each other.

Such is the level of hostility and acrimony between them that Mrs Zia was once reported to have declared that she would celebrate her birthday on the anniversary of the assassination of Mrs Hasina's father, along with more than 20 of his close relatives.

Inciting violence

Each accuses the other of inciting violence.

Rival party supporters have often fought pitched battles.

The caretaker government which supervised the election deployed more than 50,000 troops to keep the peace.

But diplomats and some Bangladeshi commentators fear that hostility between the two sides could now intensify and lead to more bloodshed.

"If the loser doesn't give in and concede defeat, you might see further violence," said a foreign diplomat.

"Bangladesh is highly polarised between the two main parties. That could now be a very dangerous thing," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity.

Military dictators held power in Bangladesh for many years.

But diplomats said a military takeover was now unlikely.

"Even if violence were to reach such a point that the army felt that it had to step in to restore order, you've got to remember that the military itself is divided too," a diplomat said.

Issues obscured

The ideological differences between the parties are slight.

The Awami League is seen as more pro-Indian and left-leaning, while the BNP is viewed as more pro-Pakistani.

But the issues were largely obscured during the campaign, while the two leaders exchanged insults.

Mrs Zia said Sheikh Hasina had failed to enforce law and order.

Many commentators from different political camps say violent crime has increased in recent years.


Mrs Zia also criticised Mrs Hasina for not standing up to India.

A series of skirmishes on Bangladesh's border with India earlier this year cost the lives of troops and civilians from both countries.

Defending her record, Mrs Hasina said the Bangladeshi economy had grown by roughly 5% a year while she was in power.

She said that she had ended a tribal insurgency in the south-east, and resolved a dispute with India over the sharing of water from the River Ganges.

Islamic tendency

Sheikh Hasina says Bangladesh risks losing its secular identity because the BNP is allied with two hardline Muslim parties.

In Dhaka, posters with quotations from Osama Bin Laden competed for wall space with pictures of election candidates.

The American military build-up has often swallowed more space on the front pages of Bangladeshi newspapers than the election campaign.

Some commentators believe that the BNP and its allies benefited from fears of an impending American attack against Afghanistan.
Published in BBC. True another pain for India.