The Battle of Bangladesh’s Leading Ladies

Since 1991, Bangladesh has been the object of a fierce custody battle fought by the formidable leaders of its two largest political parties: Sheikh Hasina of the Bangladesh Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), dubbed “the battling begums” by The Economist. The power, the parliament and the population have been passed back and forth in what is perhaps the world’s most extreme two-party system; and Bangladesh’s 156 million[1] inhabitants have suffered endlessly at its hands.

Image courtesy of The Commonwealth, ©2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of The Commonwealth, ©2011, some rights reserved.

The war waged between the nation’s matriarchs has little to do with opposing political ideologies; in fact the politics of the BNP and the Awami League are strikingly similar. The Bangladeshi Parliament is being used as a very public arena for the very personal dispute between the parties’ leaders. If suspicions are to be believed, the two have good reason for their rivalry. Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh and who was killed in 1975 along with most of his close family. Mrs Hasina and her supporters have always suspected that the BNP, including its founder Ziaur Rahman, the late husband of Mrs Zia, were involved in the assassination. The animosity between the two is so extreme that they almost never meet in person and rarely speak; save for a few notable occasions where the conversation simply dissolved into bitter argument.

Any suggestion of the ‘progressive’ nature of the fact that two women hold power in a Muslim democracy with severe women’s rights issues is weakened by their conduct and the state of the nation under their leadership. Hasina and Zia have taken turns in the Prime Minister’s chair in a series of questionable elections and consequently; the members of their respective parties have alternated between the extremes of the privilege afforded to them when their party is in power and prison cells or exile when the baton is passed to the other side. The extent of the maltreatment of the Opposition is absurd: within days of a general election, party members who have the means to flee do so, whilst the others’ homes are raided and their assets frozen prior to dubious arrests aimed at preventing them from any future opposition to the incumbent party. This ‘punishment’ also extends to the leaders themselves, with recent reports stating that the government has called for electricity to be cut off at Khaleda Zia’s office, where she has remained under unofficial house arrest for the last few weeks.[2] This recent attack comes in response to the former Prime Minister’s refusal to acknowledge the power of Mrs Hasina’s government. Early in January, a year after the last particularly controversial general election that was boycotted by the BNP—resulting in a landslide ‘victory’ for the Awami League— Mrs Zia called for mass anti-government protests. These protests resulted in a crippling nationwide transport blockade and several violent clashes in the country’s cities, all in the hope of forcing Mrs Hasina to call a further election.

In the wake of these playground-style politics, centred so undeniably on the desires of the political elite as opposed to those of the people, a significant amount of resistance may be expected from the population. Yet amongst the vast majority of Bangladeshis, this is not the case. Millions of supporters continue to back one party or the other, as loyalty to the founding fathers of this young, proudly nationalist country still pervades in spite of the faults of their successors. Unfortunately this allegiance, along with a lack of a viable alternative, has left the country in a political stalemate for over twenty years. In addition, Bangladesh’s neighbours and overseas partners are either unwilling or unable to interfere. Foreign calls for compromise have fallen on deaf ears, in spite of Bangladesh’s heavy economic dependency on the export trade. So what can be done to stop the “battling begums”?

As controversial as it may sound, it has often been suggested that a military-backed government would be Bangladesh’s salvation, especially considering that the most recent military-assisted caretaker government (CTG) of 2007-2008 enjoyed strong support both within Bangladesh and abroad. The CTG stopped violent anti-government demonstrations and made bold efforts to deal with the corruption and rivalry that have blighted Bangladeshi politics for almost twenty-five years. They also made huge reforms to the electoral system by introducing photographic voter ID cards.[3] However, they were unable to establish changes in policy and attitudes that would be sustained after the election of a new government, and their efforts to control Zia and Hasina were not great enough to prevent them coming back to power. Yet with more time and the support of the population and foreign powers, such a government could make a real difference.

Many are hesitant to support the idea of a military-backed government due to the potential reaction from foreign powers. Currently, the country’s Chief General states that his army has no political ambitions[4], perhaps out of fear that the army would stop receiving the funding it currently gets from the UN for its contribution of Peacekeeping forces (Bangladesh sends more troops to the UN Peacekeeping Forces than any other country in the world.)[5] However, the nation’s entire political system is desperately in need of drastic reform by a strong entity that can ensure sustainable change. In the absence of a viable political alternative, the Bangladeshi army is perhaps the only body that retains the strength and authority required to provide some much-needed stability to the struggling nation. In order to please all parties, a civilian government supported actively by the military would be the best course of action. However, with tensions rising in Dhaka, it appears that this will not be possible unless the army steps in to end this bitter tug-of-war once and for all.






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