Survival Struggle in Bangladesh

After 24 years of murderous rivalry between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, and her hated challenger Begum Khaleda Zia, the country has reached a new phase, an existential struggle for survival between the two women.

The contest between Sheikh Hasina, 67, who heads the Awami League, the head of the coalition leading the government, and Begum Khaleda, 70, the head of the Bangladesh National Party, has now grown so bitter than it is harming the nation’s genuine interests. Each is threatening to jail the other for life depending on who wins the power struggle. Although their political positions are not far apart, the struggle is for power, not policy, with the main difference being that Sheikh Hasina’s government is secular while Begum Khaleda would reinstall a Muslim regime if returned to power.

Although Begum Khaleda is the primary target of the Hasina government, Sheikh Hasina believes she is safe, ensconced in the premiership. However, the intensifying struggle for power means she may not be sure of retaining her position as masses of opponents take to the streets. Losing power to Khaleda means Sheikh Hasina faces jail for life. Hundreds have died on both sides in successive elections.

Since 1991, the two women have traded the premiership twice, serving alternative terms after elections marred by violence. In 2006, the rivalry between the two became so destructive that electoral politics stalled out for two years and both women were jailed temporarily by a caretaker government. Both represent assassinated relatives. Hasina is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated with most of his family in an army coup in 1975. Some of the conspirators were finally put to death earlier this year, 30 years later. Khaleda is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, who founded the BNP and who was assassinated in 1981.

Hasina was reelected in January 2014 in a raucous election termed a sham by the opposition after the BNP and some 20 other opposition parties boycotted the polls, charging they were fixed. Despite the fact that the opposition boycotted the polls, hundreds were still killed or injured in violent attacks from both sides, according to Bangladeshi human rights organizations.

“These were the bloodiest elections since independence, and unless concrete steps are taken to address what happened, the situation in Bangladesh is likely to worsen,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch in the wake of the polls. “It is important that the leaders of the main political parties not only make public statements denouncing this senseless violence, but also take measures to censure party members found responsible for the violence.”

Sporadic violence has ensued since, with two BNP members shot to death on the streets in January as Khaleda sought to force a new election, charging the 2014 one was fraudulent. Hasina, however, has refused all pressure to step down. She is now threatening to charge Khaleda with treason and jail.

The new phase set on when Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu repeated a statement by Sheikh Hasina in Parliament that a tribunal would be formed with the end of the Muslim fasting holiday on July 17 for quick disposal of cases filed against Begum Khaleda for allegedly instigating arson attacks during the BNP-led 20-party alliance’s movement.

However, BNP leaders have warned against trying Khaleda under the special tribunal.

“We want to clearly say that the allegations for which the government is threatening to form the tribunal to try Khaleda are false, fabricated and baseless. There’ll be no use of issuing any threat as no one can annihilate the party and its leadership which has immense public support. We want to tell the government that it’s pointless to threaten the BNP, ” the party said in a statement. It demanded that the government release senior BNP leaders before the end of Ramadan if it has “goodwill and intention to create a congenial political atmosphere.”

The government ignored the demand. As required by Islamic custom, Hasina and Khaleda have traditionally greeted each other during the two Eid holidays, one signaling the end of Ramadan and the second 10 days later when Muslims donate food to family and friends and Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year. Beyond that they studiously avoid each other. The two leaders also invited each other to their respective parties hosted for politicians during this Ramadan, but neither attended the other’s as they always have.

Khaleda on Eid issued a plea to work together for the greater good of the country, saying “Our country has potential and is a very resourceful one. We all need to work together for its progress. To make that happen, we’ll need to forget who is what.”

That was ignored. To the continuing call by BNP leaders to step down for new elections, Sheikh Hasina has no intention of doing so despite calls by international leaders to uphold the values of genuine democracy. Her intention is to ensure her own survival in national politics. She is unsure, given the atmosphere in the country, that her party would return to power again after the polls.

Despite the political squabbling, the economy has grown by about 6 percent annually since 1996 in the face of poor infrastructure, corruption, inadequate energy production and other problems including little or no implementation of economic reforms. More than 1,100 people were killed in 2013 with another 2,515 injured in the deadliest garment factory accident in history, and indication of both the substandard conditions in which factory workers were forced to toil, and of the substandard level of construction in the country. Garment exports account for more than 80 percent of exports, surpassing US$18 billion in 2014 and earning the country and the exporting manufacturers a dismal reputation for exploitation of workers. Sadly, there seems little will to pay attention to those problems as the two women continue their decades-long feud.